This is an excerpt from the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 Magazine, on sale now. This is the last of three previews this week. Want more? Well, the link's up there.
Today: we go Gator hunting.
If it wasn't for Tennessee, Florida would be the team-in-crisis du jour in the SEC East. Last year the Gators were wracked by attrition from guys getting kicked off the team for various reasons or just outright transferring. In the post-Meyer era, Florida needs stability as much as they need wins. That wasn't helped by the hiring and departure of Charlie Weis within a single season.
That's not to say the new guy, Brian Pease (formerly of the Boise State Broncos death machine), is incapable. However, there's a reasonable argument that he's unproven. While he was in Chris Petersen's system since 2006, Pease was only an offensive coordinator under Petersen for a single season. Petersen's previous OC, Brian Harsin, left for Texas at the end of the 2010 season, and Kellen Moore was a once-in-a-decade type QB. Then again, Jared Zabransky wasn't half bad either. It's somewhat reasonable to compare
Pease's potential to that of the Harsin/Justin Wilcox duo, and it's probably a bit harsh to just assume he's the Dan Hawkins of ex-Boise coordinators.
The problem with making that comparison is that both Harsin and Wilcox (aside from remembering that
Wilcox just up and left) had to deal with makeshift setups. Texas couldn't keep a running back healthy to save itself, and Texas' QB situation in 2011 can be best summed up with the following phrase: The most developed arm on the team transferred to SMU halfway through the season. As far as Wilcox, we know that story; massive attrition on the defensive side of the ball resulted in an incredibly thin defense even by thin defense standards (raise your hand if you remember the "Tennessee doesn't play dime because they don't have enough DBs" fun from the tail end of the 2010 season). There were signs of turning it around last year - and indeed, the 2011 defense's performance in the face of everyone getting injured is to be commended - but, well, Marsalis Teague, y'all. It wasn't perfect.
The good news, such as it is, is that Florida's in as much flux as Tennessee was and/or is. Like Texas, the best pure passeron the team has gone, and the speed combination of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey has shuffled off to the greener pastures of the NFL, leaving not nearly as much in its wake.
It bears noting that even though Florida's offense is in an existential crisis, it's still going to take some effort to be worse than last year. There was no shortage of talent, but Weis' utilization of said talent at the best of times merely bordered on unwatchable. The less said about the Florida State game to end the regular season that set the cause of offense back 50 years, the better.
The defense isn't quite in the same hideous territory. They finished 8th in the nation in total defense last year (good enough for 5th in the SEC) and 20th in scoring defense. Elite players abound, as is expected. Ronald Powell looks like the latest in the linebacker/defensive end hybrid terrors, while Jonathan Bostic is the next Florida linebacker striking fear into the heart of opponents. ‘Backer Jelani Jenkins is also quite good in his own right. Matt Elam leads a dominating secondary (6th in the nation in pass defense last year), and it's at least worth noting that cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Jeremy Brown don't record a lot of tackles. I'm not sure if this is due to teams not passing successfully in their direction or not passing in their direction, though, and that distinction is important.
For his trials and travails, Caleb Sturgis graduating leaves the Florida kicking game in a bit of a lurch. Brad Phillips should assume the mantle of placekicker, and Kyle Christy should have the punting job to himself. As is the case with any kicker, there's at least the assumption that guys with legs grow on trees, so this is subject to change after any missed field goal or shanked punt.
There isn't a huge gulf of talent separating Florida and Tennessee. The gap between fan expectations and mental fortitude, however, is significant. There's been a trend across Tennessee athletics the last year or so to be much better at home than on the road, even more so than would normally be expected. As a result, it's fortunate that this game is in Neyland Stadium rather than Gainesville. That mental fortitude extends to the fans, who have gotten Charlie Brown'd so frequently in the last couple years we're all suffering from pattern baldness.
This shell-shocked potential is worth addressing. While the game is at home, there's going to be a distinct atmosphere of "what happens when the other shoe drops?" if something goes wrong. The best example I can think of comes from hockey. The Washington Capitals have suffered numerous playoff disappointments the last few years, even in the face of their most successful regular seasons in their history. As a result, the fans expect disappointment come playoff season, and the fastest way to eliminate the Capitals in April and May is simple: Win one game in Washington. The snowball effect takes care of itself.
The same basic principle applies here. Florida simply cannot get a lead early. There's no easy way around it, and there aren't any mitigating shortcuts to be had. That can't happen. There will be a time this season that the Vols will need to learn how to rally, but this game isn't it. (Actually, the time for this might come against NC State two weeks prior. Odd as that sounds, it's a neutral environment in theory, so Tennessee fans with lumps in their throats won't be as pronounced or obvious. Alternatively, Georgia also works for many reasons.)
With a hopefully healthy Bray-to-Hunter combination, the question of scoring should be addressed. It certainly looks like Florida is ripe for an upset. The question is whether Tennessee can actually deliver on this promise. Florida has been the season-breaking point for the last few seasons. With a win, the season will break positively. Lose, and we're back down the same rabbit hole.