Prediction Panel: Tennessee at No. 9 Florida

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Florida Gators this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ first SEC game of the 2019 season.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    There are a lot of ingredients here for Tennessee to pull off the upset. The Vols are the road team for a noon kick-off, Jarrett Guarantano typically plays better on the road, Daniel Bituli looks to be close to full health, Bryce Thompson will likely play, Florida has a quarterback making his first career start, and the Gators have several players nicked up on defense.

    The problem is, I don’t know that I trust Tennessee’s “chefs” to put all those ingredients together to create the Upset Special.

    Tennessee’s offensive line will likely be starting two true freshmen — Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright — along with a redshirt sophomore in K’Rojhn Calbert, and all three of those linemen will be making their first career road starts. Not only that, but they’ll be going up against a stout Florida front seven, easily the best front seven this unit will have faced all season up to this point.

    Florida feasted on Miami’s young offensive line in Week 1. There’s a good chance that happens again on Saturday.

    On the flip side, the Vols’ defensive line has been very underwhelming to start the season. Nobody has really stood out in a group that’s consistently seen about eight or nine players rotate through a game. The Vols’ linebackers have been good and have only gotten better as the season has progressed, but they’ve had to clean up the mess the D-line left behind far too often.

    This Florida squad isn’t a top 10 team in my opinion. But Tennessee probably isn’t even a top 40 team this year, maybe not even a top 50 team. Unless the Vols have a ton go right — and I’m talking about the same amount of good things going right that UT had go their way against Auburn last year — I just don’t see them pulling off this upset.

    Tennessee has to win the turnover battle, withstand an aggressive Florida defense, get Jarrett Guarantano to play one of his better games, and not have coverage lapses in the secondary or issues with alignment on defense in general.

    If UT gets all those things to go their way, they’ll win. I just don’t see all of that happening. I think some of it will, which makes me think Tennessee can keep this game closer than Vegas is assuming. But I don’t think UT gets the win.

    The Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003, and they’ve only won down there twice in my entire lifetime. I’m not betting on that changing this weekend.

    Pick: 31-20, Florida

    MVP: Van Jefferson, Florida WR

    Van Jefferson worries me a lot in this game. He’s arguably Florida’s most dangerous receiver, and while Freddie Swain’s speed in the slot should also cause a match-up problem for UT, I think Jefferson has the potential to be a big problem. He was targeted often by Kyle Trask once he entered the game at QB, and Jefferson finished last weekend’s win over Kentucky with seven catches for 93 yards. Six of those receptions came after Trask entered the game. Tennessee’s secondary has had plenty of issues this season, and I think Jefferson could be in store for a solid afternoon.

    Ben’s Pick

    Despite what the rankings say, Florida is not the ninth-best team in the country. Are the Gators a top-25 team? Yes, they are. But they’re not a top-10 team. Point being, Florida is a good team, but it has weaknesses which will give the Vols a chance to pull off the upset.

    But unfortunately for Tennessee, it’s not necessarily equipped to take advantage of those weaknesses.

    We’ll start with the Gators’ offense. Even with a backup quarterback playing, Florida’s offensive line is the unit’s biggest weakness. It’s not necessarily a bad group up front, but they’re just inexperienced. They have four new starters and are replacing 141 combined career starts from a season ago.

    Florida’s offensive line has been good in pass protection, only allowing three sacks through three games. They’ve struggled in the running game, however, as has starting running back Lamical Perine. The Gators’ 419 rushing yards on the season are the third-fewest in the SEC, while Perine has only rushed for more than 50 yards once this season. That came when he rushed for 51 yards against UT-Martin. Against Miami, he rushed for 42 yards, and then last week against Kentucky, he ran for just 27 yards.

    One would think that Tennessee would be able to take advantage up front, but Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive front hasn’t been all that great to begin the season — particularly along the defensive line.

    Then you look at Florida’s defense, where the Gators are thin and inexperienced in the secondary. Tennessee’s receivers have the advantage here, but they must rely on a young, inexperienced offensive line to come together and play well in order for Jarrett Guarantano to get them the football. Oh, and Guarantano has to play well, too, something he hasn’t necessarily done this season.

    Other than those two areas, Florida is strong across the board. Yes, even with backup quarterback Kyle Trask playing the majority of the game. I though the Florida offensive actually looked more efficient with Trask at the helm against Kentucky than with Franks. Plus, Trask showed more leadership in one quarter than Franks ever has at Florida.

    The Vols have the opportunity to win this game, but it must play near-perfect football in order to do so. Again, it’s not impossible, but it’ll be tough. If Tennessee does win, it’ll be because it won the turnover battle, it played better in the trenches than we’ve seen this season, it won the special teams phase of the game, and Jarrett Guarantano had a similar performance to last year’s Auburn game.

    Pick: Florida, 31-20

    (This is a funny coincidence that Nathanael and I picked the same score. For proof that I’m not copying Nathanael, you can check out my podcast with Blake Von Hagen, ‘Covering The Spread,’ where we pick all of the big games each week. We recorded Friday morning, and that’s the score I gave. Great minds think alike.)

    MVP: Florida’s front seven

    Tennessee’s offensive line has gotten better each week of the season, especially running the football. It hasn’t faced as good of a front seven as the one Florida possesses, however. The Gators front is built on multiple future NFL players, and they’ll be going up against two true freshmen and a redshirt sophomore who has very little experience. That’s likely not an equation that ends in Tennessee’s favor.

    I expect for Jabari Zuniga (if he plays), Jon Greenard, Adam Shuler, Jeremiah Moon, David Reese, and Ventrell Miller to have big days.