It's Thursday, which means we're closer to the next game than the last one, and it's easier to talk myself into what I hope happens on Saturday instead of what I think will. Really, the dominant word I would use to describe my feelings about Saturday is "curious". I'm very curious to see how this team will respond, very curious to see how Lane Kiffin will respond, and very curious to see if Jonathan Crompton has something of any merit left in the tank.
I'd much rather be excited or even nervous, because that would mean I felt like we had something to lose...but then again, playing with nothing to lose could be a good thing for this football team.
That said, since games are still played on any given Saturday, here are some ways the Vols can turn curiosity into something more:
The first rule of Tennessee-Florida is: the team that runs the ball best will win.
The second rule of Tennessee-Florida is: the team that runs the ball best will win.
It's been true for Johnny Majors, Phillip Fulmer, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, and Urban Meyer, so I don't see how it's any different for Lane Kiffin. This is the 20th consecutive year the Vols and Gators have played each other, and in the previous 19, the team that's won the rushing battle has won the game 17 times. The most notable exception is The Jabar Gaffney Game, which means that Rules 1A/2A are "Get Touchdowns, not Field Goals".
You'll see two different styles of the run game on Saturday. The Vols stared down UCLA's entire defense for most of the game on Saturday, and still came away with Montario Hardesty averaging 3.4 yards per carry and Bryce Brown 3.1. Those are encouraging numbers when 11 guys on a good defense know it's coming. Of course, if the Vols get any help from Jonathan Crompton in the passing game and give Hardesty/Brown more breathing room, Tennessee has a chance to control the ball, the clock, and the tempo of the game.
I'm just going to show you these other numbers and then move on, because quite frankly they terrify me:
- Jeff Demps: 12 carries, 176 yards, 14.7 YPC
- Chris Rainey: 13 carries, 161 yards, 12.4 YPC
- Emmanuel Moody: 10 carries, 98 yards, 9.8 YPC
- Brandon James: 5 carries, 40 yards, 8.0 YPC
- Florida Team Rushing: 79 carries, 660 yards, 8.4 YPC, 8 TDs
Tennessee's Defense Plays the Game of its Life
I'm not looking for the impossible here. I'm looking for a defense that's been one of the five best in the country for two years now to fire on all cylinders.
Last year, Tennessee's defense held Florida to 243 total yards. They held Tim Tebow to 8 of 15 passing for 96 yards, and 12 carries for only 26 yards. They played the Gators better than any other defense Florida saw last year. Aside from the bad situations our offense/special teams put them in, the defense's downfall last year was third downs, where the Gators went 8 for 13. If you like to use the phrase associated with that down and our old defensive coordinator, then feel better about that this year, too: Western Kentucky went 1 of 11, UCLA went 3 of 14. So far, this defense is getting off the field.
Florida is fast, but the Vols aren't slow. I've been very impressed with our defensive line, I like what I've seen from LaMarcus Thompson and know Rico McCoy can play, and Nick Reveiz has given every indication thus far that he can be a factor too. There are unproven commodities still in the secondary, with neither WKU nor UCLA really throwing downfield against the Vols. Janzen Jackson should get the start again at free safety with Dennis Rogan back at corner. Eric Berry has been lying dormant, waiting for a moment to erupt. Now is the time.
A great Tennessee defense needs to play its very best game on Saturday. If we're going to struggle offensively, the defense cannot add to that struggle. Hopefully, they won't have to be perfect, because with this offense Florida is just going to get a play here and there, at the very very least. But they do need to be good on almost every play. These are the kind of games where great defenses have the chance to become legendary. For the Vols to pull the upset, it will take a legendary effort.
That sort of effort will include...
Lane Kiffin says it's the most important statistic. It's why the Vols lost to UCLA last week. It's a big part of why Florida has won four straight in this series: Tennessee has turned the ball over nine times in the last four meetings with Florida (three each in the last two years). In the same four games, the Gators have turned it over twice.
This starts with Tennessee not being kind to Florida. This starts with Jonathan Crompton not throwing into obvious bad spots. And this starts with great ball security from the UT backs. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.
Turnovers can be the great equalizer, and the Vols need something to work in their favor. We know Eric Berry can take advantage of Tim Tebow in the passing game. We know the Vols forced six fumbles against UCLA, but only recovered one. Can the rest of the secondary come away with interceptions? And can the Vols create more loose balls, and this time pounce on them?
To do that, the Vols must also ...
Look, he's Tim Tebow. You're not going to completely rattle him, and you're not going to bring him down every time. But the last two SEC teams to beat the Gators had great success getting pressure on #15: Georgia had six sacks on Tebow in '07, and last year Ole Miss got him down three times and stopped him on 4th and 1 on the game's deciding play.
You're not going to shut him down, and he's capable of dishing out punishment as well...but the Vols need hits of consequence on Tebow to keep him off balance, to deny his gains on the ground, and make the Gators find yards in other ways. There is no more frightening sight for a Tennessee defense than a Florida quarterback with time to throw.
"Johnny, don't be a hero!"
If Tennessee's defense and running game give us a chance to be competitive, Jonathan Crompton cannot take that chance away.
We saw last week how Crompton fared when the Vols needed a touchdown to win in the two minute offense. Against Florida's defense on the road, I have no expectations of him being able to pull something like that off. But what he can do is manage the game well enough to not take us out of it before it gets to that point. If the defense and the running game keep us in it, Crompton can't take us back out of it. If the defense and the running game somehow give us the lead, Crompton must protect it.
I think Kiffin will do a better job establishing that role this week, and the pass plays he does call for him will be safer and hopefully confidence-inducing: bubble screens, more checkdowns, etc. Tennessee fans cannot expect Jonathan Crompton to win this game. But we will always expect the quarterback at the University of Tennessee to not get us beat.
We are four touchdown underdogs in an unholy land with a defense good enough to keep it interesting. I'm curious to see what happens.