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Tennessee vs Florida Preview: A Quiet Storm

The more of this we see on Saturday, the better.
The more of this we see on Saturday, the better.

(Post title in honor of C.J. Watson, who may or may not be Floyd Mayweather's next opponent, but does have experience hitting Florida in the mouth.)

After two decades of general armageddon, Florida Week is here with no sound and little fury.  No longer are both programs simultaneously competing for National Championships, no longer are we the only two teams with any real shot to win the East.  The Ballcoach from Johnson City who made a living antagonizing the Vols has been somewhere else for nine years now, the coach who was on the wrong end of those losses too many times is also gone, and his replacement's best efforts to carry the flame of this rivalry moved west after just one round.

For the first time I can ever remember on The Third Saturday in September, both teams are more concerned about themselves than the other.  Derek Dooley's arrival in this rivalry has given it the dreaded "mutual respect" quality:  Urban Meyer has certainly earned it, having beaten the Vols every year of his tenure in Gainesville, and Corch has graciously reciprocated for Precious.

The rivalry itself isn't the main storyline this week, replaced by a pair of frustrating offenses that both teams are surely working like heck to improve.  Florida's dealing with the status of RB/WR/stalker Chris Rainey, while the Vols are dealing with all the joys of having a first year head coach...for the second year in a row...after losing by 35 points the previous week.  You know the drill.

Dooley will point to the process and the future, Meyer will point to talent and the past.  Vegas says the Gators are 16.5 points better, making it the new biggest home spread the Vols have faced since 1989 seven days after Oregon set that mark.  This suggests Florida's talent will be too much for Tennessee's new coach, again.  Ho-hum, Gators win six in a row over the Vols and continue to try to grow, while the Vols continue to try to survive.  What was once the most exciting new rivalry in the SEC has become, well, boring and predictable.

...unless, of course, Dooley can do what Kiffin could only promise, and we sing Rocky Top all night long when Dooley wins round one. 

We showed in part one of our preview that the numbers suggest it's not that crazy a thought.  And remember:  we were never more hopeless against these guys than we were last year, and the Vols surprised us then.  If they're going to surprise us again (and not just a moral surprise this time, but a real one), here's the blueprint:

1. The first rule of Tennessee-Florida is:  The team that wins rushing yards wins the game.

2. The second rule of Tennessee-Florida is:  THE TEAM THAT WINS RUSHING YARDS WINS THE GAME.

20 consecutive years we've played.  18 times, the team that's run for the most yards has won the game.  It's like death, and I'm pretty sure more people know this stat than actually pay their taxes.  Take it to the bank.

Take it to the bank quickly this year.  It's Florida's new thing to do, and it's all we can do.  But both of us have the potential to do it really, really well.

It may be all Florida can do too, and they just haven't fully committed to it yet.  In fact, I hope they haven't:  I'll take my chances with John Brantley's 285 combined yards against Miami (OH) and South Florida over Jeff Demps' 12.5 yards per carry.  Fumble yardage lost throws the team rushing total off quite a bit, but Demps and Mike Gillislee have been solid both games.  Tennessee's defense should do a better job than either of the Gators' first two opponents did, and it'll be interesting to see how heavily Florida relies on the run in Knoxville...but either way, the Vols will have a chance to win the rushing battle on their own merit.

Tauren Poole and the offensive line are enjoying shutting everyone up to the tune of 40 carries for 272 yards (6.8 per) through two games.  David Oku's 13 carries for 85 yards (6.5 per) suggest Tennessee can keep moving the chains when Poole needs a breather.  If this offense can consistently move the football with a power running game, life will be much, much easier.  Florida should be more focused on stopping the run than Oregon was.  But a Gator defense that allowed South Florida to run for 244 yards may not be good enough to shut it down completely.  Tennessee's defense will just be happy to see someone other than Oregon.

I know Florida's speed and talent are probably on par with what we just saw Saturday...but the Oregon offense was a well-oiled machine that capitalized on our depth issues.  Florida's offense is missing its driver and has sputtered mightily.  I know I say this every year, but we should win the rushing battle on Saturday.      

3. Who makes fewer mistakes:  Matt Simms or John Brantley?

Simms has only made one, but it led to lots of others and essentially ended Tennessee's hopes last week.  Brantley has made several, at home, against weaker competition.  Neyland Stadium did not bother Darron Thomas last week.  But Brantley has been plenty bothered in his own house...who knows how he'll handle Saturday.

Simms has been safer, but Florida's defense has been very opportunistic against the pass.  Brantley's risk/reward factor is much, much higher.  Unlike last week, I do think Tennessee can win this game if Simms throws for less than 200 yards.  These are two quarterbacks who aren't there yet, and while Brantley and the Gator passing game certainly appears to have more upside on paper, that paper's been pretty worthless thus far.

Could Florida come out running smoothly and efficiently, and could Brantley go back to completing an insane 75% of his passes the way he did in garbage time last year?  Sure...but from what we've seen in the first two weeks, it would require an instant transformation, and I'm not sure that's in the cards.

If Simms manages the game with no mistakes, Tennessee is going to have a chance to win.

4. Special Teams

For yet another year, we've been had.  And while some other punt returns by DeSean Jackson or Brandon "Couldn't Graduate Fast Enough For Us" James may have been more spectacular, they certainly weren't easier than the "Hey I think I'll just take this ball and run in a straight line down the middle of the field untouched for 80 yards" Kenjon Barner gave us last week.

We're still lousy at punt coverage, our freshman savior pulled a groin on his first and so far only kickoff, and I've never seen so many punt returners in orange fear for their safety - we're dead last in America with -8 total punt return yards.

The good news is, all of that has made us forget about the way we didn't want Daniel Lincoln to be our kicker, and while we were mad about that stuff, Lincoln went 4-for-4 in the first two games, including a 48 yarder.

We need all the points we can get, and we cannot afford to give Florida any advantage.  Urban's teams have dominated us in the third phase since his arrival.  Just once - JUST ONCE - could we please make a big special teams play against the Gators?  It's been twelve years since Collins Cooper missed that field goal...I think we're due.

5. Make it boring

Tennessee's defense last year was exceptional at not giving up big plays.  If you take away the Ole Miss game (a week that involved injuries, suspensions, and McCluster), the Vols gave up more big plays to Oregon on Saturday than they did all of last year.  David Paulson's 27 yard TD catch wasn't all that lengthy, but it was absolutely huge at the end of the half.  The next four scoring plays were a 72 yard run, a 76 yard pick six, a 29 yard TD pass that Art Evans should've at least broken up, if not picked off, and an 80 yard punt return.

Tennessee's offense is not built for the big play.  We do long drives 'round these parts.  When we give one up, it's even more demoralizing because we know we won't answer quickly.  If the Vol defense can keep Florida from the big play - and half of Florida's 10 TDs this year have come on plays of 25 yards or more - we make an offense that's shown no consistency either learn it or punt.  Frustrate them long enough, and perhaps Brantley starts forcing things.

What percentage of Florida's issues have to do with attitude/entitlement?  Their freshmen were well-publicized in fall camp for comparing themselves to the NBA guy who's won nothing and his two teammates in Miami, then threatening to transfer when they weren't being treated as such.  Whatever calming or leadership influence Tim Tebow had, it's gone.  Florida's upperclassmen have seen so much winning, I'm sure it starts to feel like what happens naturally when you put on that uniform...especially against uniforms you've beaten five years in a row nad just watched get blown away by 35 points.  

But for Brantley and company, we may be a lot of things, but we're not Miami (OH) and we're not South Florida, and this ain't The Swamp.  If the Vols shut off the big play valve and make Florida work, any current frustrations will come to the surface.

On the other hand, Tennessee and Derek Dooley have to manage their own frustrations.  If Dooley has the Vols ready to play and eager for another chance to face adversity, I think Tennessee has a real shot on Saturday - not to impress, but to win.  It's a sick curiosity, but I'm interested to see what happens if the Gators get up 7-0.  Do remember that before we were all worried about us quitting, we drove to the Oregon red zone immediately following LaMichael James' demoralizing TD run.  It's in there, somewhere...we just won't know how much of it we truly have until this team faces adversity again.

Of course, the best option would be to hit Florida in the mouth early, whether that comes from the big play or not.  We've seen underdog Tennessee teams come out and steamroll Florida with the running game before in this rivalry:  Travis Henry's 175 in 2000 should've been enough, and Travis Stephens' 226 the next year won it for us.  Tauren Poole will have a chance to write his name into the lore of this rivalry...and the Vols should put it on his shoulders all day long.

Take the pressure off Simms, put the ball in TP's hands, and WIN THE RUSHING BATTLE.  On this Saturday in this rivalry, it's never been more important...and if we can do that?  Nothing else may matter. 

If we can't?  Florida will win again no matter how spectacular they may or may not look along the way, and we'll look ahead to UAB and a chance for a win and continued progress.  Ho-hum.

But what if we can?