Tennessee and Florida have danced this dance the last twenty-one years. Nineteen times, the team that runs for more yards has won the game. The last exception to the rule was eleven years ago. It's how this works.
Yet coming into this game both teams are getting a little less than desired from their ground game, especially given both teams are getting exactly what their fans feared from their quarterbacks. There's no doubt both Tennessee and Florida want to make their money with the run. But thus far both teams have come up a little short on both the stat sheet and the scoreboard.
Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane combined for 25 carries and 105 yards against Oregon. That's decent, but decent will not lead to more wins than losses this year. The Vols don't just need a strong ground game to beat Florida. Tennessee has to be able to run the ball with authority to beat the Missouris and Auburns of the world. The Vols got it done against Western Kentucky - 45 carries for 240 yards - and will need more of that all season no matter who's playing quarterback.
Meanwhile Florida was likewise effective in the season opening 24-6 win over Toledo - 48 carries for 262 yards - but certainly frustrated Gator fans with a 2.77 yards per carry average against Miami in the 21-16 loss. Tennessee doesn't want to put the game in the hands of Justin Worley or a freshman quarterback, and Florida certainly doesn't want to put the game in Jeff Driskel's hands, no matter what he did to Sal Sunseri's defense last season.
So who wins this time?
The argument seems to favor Florida because of both defenses: Tennessee is now very thin in the middle and will still be without Curt Maggitt. I don't think anyone expects a repeat of last year's performance - 336 rushing yards at 7.8 per carry - but Tennessee's defense has to put up a fight or this thing is over in a heartbeat. I expect the Vols to play with more pride, more discipline, and hopefully more results - in the first half at Oregon the Vols were in the right place at the right time fairly often, but simply failed to make the play. Missed tackles in space have been the bane of our existence against Florida for a decade. Clean it up or pay the price.
Meanwhile the Vols will go against the third best run defense in the country through three weeks, no big deal.
There's no doubt Florida will challenge Tennessee in ways that will require the Vol quarterback to make plays. This won't be the only time that happens this year, though it may be one of the stiffest defenses to do so. But Tennessee has to be consistently successful in the ground game regardless of opponent or we're in for a very long autumn, again.
This leads us back to the supposed strength of this team: just how elite is Tennessee's offensive line?
A growing conversation among our fanbase is, "This is an elite pass-blocking line, not an elite line." If that's the case, we need a quarterback to show up in a hurry.
If we're so stacked with NFL talent up front, can they make a real difference on Saturday? Can they rise to the challenge against an NFL defensive front and make a real impact? You can break down the quarterbacks all you want on both sides, but the truth of this rivalry will not change this year: if Tennessee can impose its will up front, run the ball and control the pace, with a few breaks the Vols can still win this game. If not, Florida will come rolling downhill at the Vol defense and, unless they're feeling super generous again, will pound Tennessee down over time. The Vols will look for big plays here and there in the pass game or on special teams, but down-to-down Tennessee has to run the ball well enough to stay on schedule and give itself manageable down and distances, this week and all year. We need a few breaks, but more than anything we need a performance from our offensive line we're still talking about on Monday to win this game.
The team that runs for more yards will once again win this game. Let's see how good the greatest strength of our team can truly be.