Tennessee football faces its first true test of the 2023 season Saturday when they open SEC play at Florida. The Vols have never been bigger favorites in Gainesville than they are this week but question marks still spiral around Tennessee ahead of the rivalry showdown.
Josh Heupel’s third Tennessee team is looking to exorcise two decades of Volunteer demons at The Swamp while Billy Napier’s second Florida team is looking for a program jolting win.
Here’s three keys to Tennessee football winning in Florida.
More From RTI: The Great Joe Milton Question Comes To A Head Saturday
Don’t Start Slowly
Win The Special Teams Battle
Run The Ball And Stop The Run
I’ve buried the lede here. Both of the previous topics are important. But this, to me, is what this game comes down to. If Tennessee runs the ball better, they’ll definitely win. If Florida runs the ball better, they’ll probably win.
The reason for its importance is simple. Both Florida’s (Trevor Etienne or Montrell Johnson) and Tennessee’s (Jaylen Wright) best offensive players are running backs. Getting those players in space with a chance to make plays is crucial for both offenses.
Secondly, there are questions surrounding both Graham Mertz and Joe Milton III entering the game. I imagine both Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks and Florida defensive coordinator Austin Armstong are content to make the opponent’s quarterback beat them.
Which team is better equipped to run the ball effectively? I think it’s Tennessee. The Vols run defense has been stout since the start of last season and held the Gators’ two star tailbacks to 53 yards on 18 carries (2.9 YPG) last season. Florida’s run defense isn’t a slouch but hasn’t been as strong as Tennessee’s. The Vols are also more likely to make Florida pay for bringing an extra defender into the box than vice versa.
One final thought is that I can’t shake the thought that this game is going to be Wright’s coming out party to the SEC and greater college football audience as a whole.