Tennessee at Florida Preview - Attack, Attack, Attack

Always attack.

It was the mantra of Johnny Majors, who is two decades and a lifetime of heartbreak removed from the Tennessee-Florida rivalry.  Ever since the second half downpour in The Swamp in 1995, we've associated terrible things with the Gators.  And there are plenty of options to choose from:  the first half of 1996, Peyton Manning to Tony George, Alex Brown, toss sweeps on 4th and 3, Jabar Gaffney, Casey Clausen in the rain, fake punts to no one, Arian Foster fumbling, etc.

Even the four times the Vols have beaten the Gators since Manning left, each of those games carried, at least for me, a constant sense of impending doom.  That's why we're so surprised when we do beat them.

But as we've mentioned all week, it's a new chapter in this rivalry.  Urban Meyer works for ESPN, Phillip Fulmer for CBS College Sports, and Steve Spurrier has been gone for ten years.  Derek Dooley gets a pass on everything that happened last year, including losing to the Gators in a surprisingly competitive game.  And the vast majority of those in an orange uniform who will be counted on tomorrow have no history with the Gators.

It's a new day.  And it's here to be seized.

Better and more experienced Tennessee teams have gone to Gainesville to face better and more experienced Florida teams in the past.  But in a very strange way, I've never felt more confident in a Tennessee team's ability to win in Gainesville than I do with this team tomorrow.  It's a compliment to the great Gator teams of the past.  But this is the present.

There is no reason to expect the worst against Florida on Saturday.  The old has gone.  If the new is to come, here's what the Vols need to answer:

1. Can Tyler Bray continue to be all reward and no risk?

When we spent the entire offseason trying to figure out what UT's offense would look like, those of us who were skeptical of turning Bray loose in the Drew Brees offense weren't afraid that it would never work.  The fear was we'd get the Music City Bowl:  plenty of yards and touchdowns, but plenty of interceptions too, all at the expense of the ol' reliable running game.  Bray's a gunslinger, we said, and sometimes gunslingers lose.  Was it really worth living and dying with a quarterback who was going to take so many young, overconfident chances that it was sure to cost us, and probably cost us more than once against a great defense?

But what we've seen from Bray hasn't been anything you could describe as "young".  And much like the old fear, the new result hasn't been as much about the yards and touchdowns as it has the overall decision making.  Bray has thrown 65 passes this season, and completed a staggering 78.5% of them.  Of his fourteen - fourteen! - incompletions, I can't remember any that I thought were a bad decision.  Several of them were drops.  No prayers into triple coverage.  Nothing that's made me say, "Well, it's only his seventh/eighth start."  Everything sunny all the time always.

Florida will be a step up.  The Gators will try to hit him and they'll try to confuse him.  He could get some huge help from his offensive line and from Tauren Poole if they play well, but in the end it's still going to be on his shoulders.  We shouldn't expect Cincinnati numbers from Bray.  But we've seen enough from him to expect good numbers and, most importantly, good decision making.  And part of that will be...

2. Who else can we rely on in the passing game?

Can the Gators, sans Janoris Jenkins, take both Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter out of the equation?  I doubt it - the 2001 Florida secondary they ain't, which blanketed Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington, making Bobby Graham the hero of the receiving game.  The Vols shouldn't need seven catches for 71 yards from someone else tomorrow, but if the Gators beg Bray to throw it somewhere else, who's game?

Rogers and Hunter have combined for 31 catches in two games.  The rest of the team has combined for 21.  Mychal Rivera was that guy last week, six catches against Cincinnati after zero against Montana.  After him?  Zach Rogers has three catches, but no other receiver has any.  DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas have played, but between the two of them I can only remember Bray sending one pass their way - the one he got pissed about when Dallas ran the wrong route against Cincinnati.

The rest of UT's receptions have gone to backup tight end Brendan Downs (who has two), and another ten have been spread around out of the backfield.  It's also important to note that all of the balls that have gone to Poole, Lane, Fugate, and Bartholomew have been on checkdowns - we're going on a full year since the Vols have run a screen pass of any kind.  Whether UT has something to combat Florida's blitz in mind with the backs, or if the freshmen wide receivers can make some plays the way Justin Hunter did against Florida last year, or if we just go back to the well with Zach Rogers and Rivera, there needs to be a third option for Bray on Saturday.

3. Can the defense finish tackles?

The Vols have played Montana and Cincinnati and are allowing 371 yards per game.  The Gators are going to get their yards.  Tennessee needs to make sure they don't give up anything extra.

It's an issue on multiple levels:  the Vols will have two freshmen at linebacker, and we've already seen an experienced backup in Daryl Vereen be partially responsible for a long touchdown because he didn't tackle properly on Isaiah Pead.  The Vol defense has had a difficult time getting quarterbacks on the ground in the last several seasons.  And those who aren't trying to get John Brantley on the ground will be trying to tackle Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, two of the fastest human beings wearing cleats on Saturday.

Plenty of former Gators have burned plenty of former Vols because we didn't get them on the ground when we should've.  This young defense will already be at a greater disadvantage just trying to line up right, something that was also a big problem on Pead's touchdown run.  When Tennessee gets a hat on somebody, they need to finish the job.

4. How much will we miss Janzen Jackson?

On our podcast this week, Clay Travis brought up the possibility of Tennessee's defense just saying screw it and going after the quarterback on every single down.  It's the same logic John Chavis used when the Vols had Peyton Manning:  we take our chances, and if we get burned, no worries, our quarterback will return the favor post-haste.

It's an idea I like...but man, I would've loved it if #15 was still back there.

Janzen was the safety net who could make up lost ground and go up and get the football.  Without him, the Vols are still trying to figure out their best rotation in the secondary; nine different DBs have recorded at least three tackles this season.  Justin Coleman has been exposed deep twice, we've seen Brian Randolph get thrown into the mix right away, and there's still some question about where to put Prentiss Waggner.

Whatever rotation the Vols go with on Saturday, they'll have their work cut out for them.  If Tennessee gets aggressive in the pass rush, can the DBs keep things from falling apart on the back end?

5. Who will be the more mature team?

Tyler Bray will get all the attention, but for months the biggest question about this game has been this:  who is farther along between Florida's new offense and Tennessee's young defense?  If the Gators, despite their mismatched personnel and the fact that it's the first big game in Gainesville for both Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis, are able to move the ball up and down the field at will, Bray will have his work cut out for him.

But the more the Vol defense can simply slow Florida down, the more breathing room it creates for Bray.  Maybe we can score 40+ points for the third straight week...but I'd rather not have to.

On the other side of the ball, how will the Vols respond if they get in trouble early?  They weren't bothered by Cincinnati's early 7-0 lead, but on the road in Gainesville it could be a different story.  There's nothing I've seen that makes me believe this Tennessee team will struggle with adversity, we just haven't seen a lot of these players truly face it yet, especially early in a game.

Most of all, it comes back to Bray.  In the first two weeks, he's played better football than any of us could've possibly imagined.  In his first true test in his first big road environment, how good will he be?  Will he stay calm when the heat gets turned up?

So we come to the part where I've spent all offseason telling myself I was going to write, "After all these years, I can't pick Tennessee to beat Florida until I see it."  But why?  All of the reasons the Gators have won six straight are gone from both sidelines.  All of the players who will make a difference for Tennessee have no negative history in this rivalry.

And whether you buy into the Year Two stuff or not, the Year One stuff is always true.  Florida isn't guaranteed to fall on their faces, but more than any other Gator team I can remember, they're not guaranteed to succeed either.  I like Muschamp and wanted him to be our coach twice.  I fully believe that he'll get Florida where Florida wants to be.  But that doesn't mean it happens right away, and that doesn't mean it happens on Saturday.

And all of the reasons I thought Tennessee wouldn't be ready for something like this?  Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter have done everything they possibly could to ease that fear.  That was still Montana and Cincinnati, and this will still be Florida.  But you can't ask the Vol passing game to play any better than it has.  If the defense can simply slow the Gators down a couple of times and the Vols can keep Bray upright long enough to get rid of the football, I believe you can ask Tennessee to win this game.

So we go to The Swamp the only way anyone ever gets out alive:  without fear.  Stop expecting bad things to happen against the Gators.  Start expecting Tyler Bray to lock and load.

Attack, attack, attack.  

Always attack.

Go Vols.

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