The Opponent: The University of Florida is a founding member of the SEC, and has been playing football since 1906. The Gators’ program mostly toiled in mediocrity until Steve Spurrier’s arrival in 1990. Florida has been one of the nation’s premier football programs since then. However, it has not been without coaching turmoil and turnover. Billy Napier is Florida’s 7th permanent head coach since Spurrier’s departure in 2001. Napier is 7-8 through fifteen games in Gainesville. In his first season he was 0-4 against Florida’s four main rivals; Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, and Florida State. Saturday’s game may be the best chance for Napier to avoid 0-8 through two seasons.
Are they any Good?: I am not sure we know the answer to that yet. By their own historical standards, no this is probably not a good Florida team. Thanks in part to a very challenging schedule, Vegas had their over/under win total below six heading into the season. The Gators looked abysmal on offense in their opener, albeit a tough opponent in a tough environment. Florida appeared to bounce back nicely last week against McNeese State, whatever you want to read into that. As always, the Gators have some really nice individual pieces. That includes two outstanding running backs, a veteran receiver in Pearsall, a young spark plug in Tre Wilson, and solid depth along its defensive front.
What will this tell us about Tennessee?: This game will tell us a lot about Tennessee. This is all of a sudden an angst-ridden fan base, after a dud of a performance against Austin Peay last week. This Florida game will tell us whether Austin Peay exposed serious deficiencies in this year’s team, or whether it was an understandable instance of Tennessee looking ahead to a larger opponent. This game will also probably tell us whether Tennessee should be taken seriously as contenders in the SEC East. A win keeps you in that conversation, at least early in the season. A loss likely disqualifies you with several tougher opponents still on the schedule. Finally, this game means a great deal to Joe Milton. The sixth year senior is running out of runway in terms of making good on his talent. To be clear, it is unfair to lay that entire Austin Peay clunker at his feet. This game Saturday matters though. If Milton can not operate this offense efficiently, then it is fair to wonder how many more chances he would get. RTI’s Ryan Schumpert does a nice job exploring that question more right here.
What does Vegas say?: This was a game that you could bet the majority of the summer with Tennessee as either 7 or 7.5-point favorites. It got as high as 9.5 after Florida’s opening loss to Utah. It opened at 8.5 last Sunday but has now been bet down to Tennessee -6.5. Maybe that movement can be attributed to Tennessee fans emotionally hedging on the Gators. Regardless, we have only seen Tennessee go to Gainesville as a favorite once this century. The Vols were favored by 1 in 2015 before losing that game 28-27. Tennessee was nearly a 20-point underdog two years ago in Gainesville.
Matchup to watch on Defense: I will keep this pretty simple, Tennessee has to control the Florida rushing attack. Billy Napier has been pretty clear all off season, this is a Florida offense that wants to put its identity in the run game. The Gators have two really nice backs in Montrell Johnson Jr and Travis Etienne. Florida wants to run both backs consistently with the dual purpose of wearing out Tennessee’s defense and keeping Tennessee’s offense off the field. It is a relatively simple plan. Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz has not shown he is capable of winning a game with his arm alone. I fully understand that sentence has the ability to come back and bite me given Tennessee’s history with pedestrian quarterbacks, but the Vols will be comfortable with Mertz dropping back to throw 30+ times. In fact, Billy Napier is 0-5 at Florida when his QB throws the ball 30+ times. Utah held Florida to just 13 net yards of rushing, well under 1.0 ypc. The result was just 11 points of total offense. Last season Tennessee defended the Florida ground game pretty well, allowing just 141 yards and 3.4 ypc. That would be a great goal for Saturday night. Yes, Florida still scored 33 points in Neyland Stadium last season. However, it is hard to see Graham Mertz matching Anthony Richardson’s 453 yards passing. If Tennessee can control Florida’s ground game, then they can control this offense. The Vols had the 2nd best run defense in the SEC last season at 115 ypg and 3.28 ypc. Saturday night will be a challenge, but the task is clear. It is also worth noting that Florida really likes to involve these two backs in the passing game. They did not do it much against McNeese State, but Montrell Johnson was very effective catching the ball out of the backfield against Utah. It is a big game for young Elijah Herring, who probably gets targeted early and often. Don’t be surprised when Florida tries to isolate Herring in pass coverage against backs and tight ends.
Matchup to watch on Offense: This is another easy one, stretch the field. Tennessee only has two passing plays over 20 yards this season. Last week, nearly half of Milton’s 21 completions were behind the line of scrimmage. It is nice to see Tennessee’s running backs more involved in the passing game, but it is coming at the expense of the big plays we’ve grown so accustomed to with this offense. Tennessee’s backs and receivers turned those screens into over 100 yards of offense last week, but that’s against an FCS defense. It is not a sustainable offense against SEC defenses. I think Josh Heupel certainly knows that. Milton was 1 of 9 on throws over 10 yards. That is what has to improve. The good news is Josh Heupel’s history tells he will find a way to manufacture big pass plays. That is critical against an attacking defense like Florida’s. New defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong has a reputation of wanting to bring pressure. Pushing the ball downfield is the best way to counter that pressure. Tennessee can not allow Florida to feel comfortable bringing more defenders around the line of scrimmage. That vertical passing game opens up everything else in this offense. It especially gives Tennessee’s talented backs more room to run, which has been the identity of this offense through two games. In addition to stretching the field, Tennessee’s offense has to also be better on third down. The Vols continue to really struggle on third down under Joe Milton, a problem that dates back to last season. Tennessee was only 3 of 12 last week against Austin Peay, dropping their season average to 28%.
Fun Fact: Anybody remember Ryan Lochte? Lochte was arguably the second-best American male swimmer during the prime Michael Phelps era. Lochte won multiple Olympic medals at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Summer Olympics. He was also a very accomplished collegiate swimmer at Florida. Lochte had a real pop culture moment around 2012-2013. Seeing the commercial success of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte did his damnedest to make himself a C-list celebrity. This even included his own reality show on E! titled “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?”. It lasted a total of 8 episodes before being canceled. That was not before Lochte tried to invent his own catchphrase. He even trademarked the term “Jeah”, his own whimsical play on “yeah”. Ryan Lochte certainly had his 15 minutes, and America was very thankful it didn’t last any longer. The swimmer has twice made headlines since. He was arrested in Brazil for making a false claim of robbery during the 2016 Olympics. Lochte and company claimed they were robbed at gunpoint. Turns out it was just security guards attempting to stop a drunken Lochte from further vandalizing a gas station bathroom. In 2018, the USADA suspended Lochte for 14 months due to an alleged violation of its anti-doping policy. So what would Ryan Lochte do? Turns out the answer is a whole bunch of stupid stuff. Hell Jeah!
So What Happens?: Tennessee needs to start fast Saturday night. Last Saturday was just the third time in 28 games that Tennessee has failed to score a 1st quarter touchdown. Tennessee started its game against Virginia with an impressive opening drive touchdown, but was otherwise ineffective early on. Every team wants to start well, but for this Tennessee team against this opponent, it is paramount. I say that for a number of reasons. To start with, this is a Tennessee offense and a Tennessee quarterback that need a little confidence after last weekend. The common phrase has been that they are “out of sync” or “out of rhythm”. The good news there is it shouldn’t take much for a veteran team to get back into rhythm. A good start would help immensely. On the flip side, you don’t want this Florida team to start playing with some confidence. You especially don’t want to let the home crowd start affecting the game. This is a Florida offense that does not seem built to play from too far behind. That causes the Gators to abandon the run-heavy scheme, and put their fate in Graham Mertz’ arm. That is exactly what Tennessee wants. Conversely, I think that is what Florida wants as well. The Gators want to make Joe Milton beat them with his arm. I am fascinated to see how Florida DC Austin Armstrong attacks Milton. Does he bring pressure even at the risk of seeing Tennessee receivers run open downfield, or does he drop more into coverage and make Milton pick it apart? Teams tried both approaches last season against Hendon Hooker, and neither was regularly successful in slowing down Tennessee’s offense. Joe Milton is not Hendon Hooker though. He does not have to be for Tennessee to win this game Saturday night. The Vols have a stable of talented running backs, led by Jaylen Wright. Tennessee would like to lean on its ground game more in Gainesville and let the passing game compliment that as opposed to vice versa. The return of Cooper Mays would help this offense immensely. I think Tennessee’s offense will play well enough Saturday night, but I think it is Tennessee’s defense that will carry them to victory. Tim Banks’ unit will slow the Florida ground game just enough to force Graham Mertz into uncomfortable situations. I think Tennessee makes more disruptive plays on defense, and that is the difference in this game.
Prediction: Vols 31, Gators 27