Tennessee football opens up SEC play Saturday night in Gainesville when they take on rival Florida. The Vols are 6.5-point favorites in the divisional matchup and are looking for their second straight win in the series.
Each week, the RTI team will provide game predictions for Tennessee’s weekly opponent.
The winner of this game will be the team that runs the ball better. I expect to see Florida focus on stopping the run, and if the Vols significantly struggle to do so, it could mean trouble for Tennessee.
Tennessee’s passing offense has given me very little confidence to think this is the week they come out firing on all cylinders. Primetime in the Swamp? I don’t care how bad Florida it is, that’s a difficult place to play.
But in terms of how bad the 2023 Gators are, I’ve been lower on them than most. Week 1 affirmed my suspicions that this year will be a major struggle for Billy Napier’s second Florida team. Graham Mertz isn’t a guy who can win games, their offensive line is a liability, and their secondary is below average.
Florida does have an elite pair of running backs in Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson Jr., but Napier has yet to utilize them like he should. Additionally, the Gators have one standout wide receiver, Ricky Pearsall, who could give Tennessee fits.
If I’m Tennessee, I double Pearsall and play to my strengths defensively, which is stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.
This could be an ugly, low-scoring game if Tennessee can’t throw the ball 10+ yards downfield again. But ultimately, the Vols stack up better against Florida, and they’re frankly a much more talented team.
Josh Heupel and the Vols knock off the Gators in Gainesville for the first time in two decades.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, Florida 16
Alright, alright, here we go.
Here we have the age-old conundrum. In one corner you have Tennessee – a better team, a more well-coached team, and the expected winner despite playing on the road in a tough environment that has played out like a horror movie for Tennessee over the past 20 years. In the other corner you have Florida – a rebuilding team with less talent than Tennessee but has the home-field advantage under the lights in The Swamp.
There’s an old cliche in sports: When these two teams meet, throw the record book out the window! Well, I’m not sure if Josh Heupel is able to throw out the record book considering he might not even know where it is. This staff is completely unconcerned about Tennessee’s rough history in Gainesville and is solely focused on winning the game on Saturday.
The key for Tennessee is to run the ball well and get off to a good start. I want to see Joe Milton and the receivers get off to a quicker start while interested to see what the offense’s gameplan will look like. I believe Tennessee can lean on their running game and control the game on the ground.
If the Vols’ defense can slow down the Gators’ strong run game and force quarterback Graham Mertz into passing situations, that spells trouble for the Florida offense. If Tennessee can take a major step forward with a quick start and a strong rushing game to control possession, I don’t believe Florida has the passing firepower to keep up with Tennessee.
I think this is a fairly back-and-forth game with Tennessee working with the lead throughout. Tennessee’s defense is going to have to come in clutch but two good showings in the last two weeks give confidence for that to happen.
Prediction: Tennessee 26, Florida 20
A full offseason of speculative talk, two weeks of talk about how Tennessee performed in games they were never going to lose and now we’re finally here. Josh Heupel’s third Tennessee team faces its first true test of the season as they face rival Florida in Gainesville.
This is a flawed Florida team. Tennessee has never been bigger favorites in Gainesville than they are this year and this is a perfect opportunity for the Vols to both end a nine-game losing streak at Florida and to prove last season’s win in Knoxville was far from a fluke. To prove that Heupel’s Vols have past Billy Napier’s Florida program.
But there are plenty of question marks surrounding Tennessee entering this game especially after its passing attack faltered in last week’s win over Austin Peay. The Vols’ questions start-and-end with Joe Milton III whose play has been erratic in his six starts as Tennessee’s quarterback. Can Milton rise to the occasion in a crucial game in his home state? Or will his poor stretches of play show up in an inopportune time and cost Tennessee a getable game? It’s also Tennessee’s first road game of the season and it figures to be a rowdy Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. How does that affect a Tennessee offense breaking in a number of new starters and a new quarterback? Lastly, Tennessee’s defense is improved this season, but how improved is still to be determined. Florida’s offense is underwhelming but still better than anything Tennessee has seen to this point in the season.
I keep coming back to my belief that this game will come down to who runs the ball better. Both teams best offensive players are running backs and their quarterbacks are question marks at best and deficiencies at worst. I like Tennessee’s chances of running the ball better. The Vols haven’t fully utilized star Jaylen Wright yet this season and their run defense was stout last year (including against Florida) and has been just as effective early this season. Even with the questions about Milton, the super senior quarterback has the ability to make the defense pay in they bring another defender into the box. I’m not sure Graham Mertz has that ability.
One closing thought. If Josh Heupel is the guy he appeared to be last season — one that brings Tennessee back to consistent SEC and national relevance — the Vols win this game. I think Heupel and his third Volunteer team get it done.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Florida 20
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: Tennessee 31, Florida 27