1. Who dictates pace of play?
At this point none of us are under any illusion that Tennessee is going to make its primary objective winning The First Rule of Tennessee-Florida. Florida has won the rushing battle and thus the game each of the last seven seasons, and I don't think any of us expect Tennessee to win the rushing battle Saturday night. Twenty years we've been doing this, and eighteen times the winner in rush yardage is the victor of the day. Only Jabar Gaffney's catch/no-catch and Casey Clausen's rain-soaked gift of short fields have stopped this trend.
But even more important than The First Rule of Tennessee-Florida is The First Rule of Your Team: dance with the one that brought you. And from where we're sitting, Tyler Bray is looking mighty fine.
Derek Dooley talked this week about his change in offensive philosophy during the offseason. At its best, this is an offense built to score touchdowns on every play. And Dooley now seems very uninterested in protecting a thin defensive front in a brand new scheme. So I expect to see the hurry-up downfield passing attack in all its glory against the Gators on Saturday night.
It's not that Florida's defense has been spectacular against the pass. The Gators have one interception against 83 pass attempts, and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel completed 23 of 30 passes. But Florida kept it all in front of them, holding the Aggie quarterback to just 173 yards. Tennessee has the horses to get behind the Gator secondary, of that there is no doubt. Tyler Bray is 12th nationally in completion percentage and 6th nationally in yards per attempt, an incredible combination.
It would seem the only way Florida is slowing down this passing attack is by getting to Tyler Bray and putting him on the ground. The Gators got Manziel thrice in College Station. It's the way they beat Peyton Manning in 1997. They also got Bray three times last year. But remember, Bray was also picking the ball up off the ground and dealing with a sudden change in the gameplan without Justin Hunter.
Tennessee wants to get up and down the field and bring out all the fireworks. Florida, if they're smart, will line it up and run right at us.
Mike Gillisle is banged up but should play. He didn't play in last year's contest in Gainesville, but did score twice against the Vols in 2010. He doesn't scare you the way Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps did. But he is averaging 6.08 yards per carry and is the leading rusher in the SEC after two games.
If the Gators can't get to Bray, their next best option is to line up and run it six billion times against a thin defensive front. Teams in the first year of a 4-3 to 3-4 transition typically struggle most against the run - with Herman Lathers and Curt Maggitt on the field the Vols have looked okay against the run, but if Florida starts running downhill I don't know if this defense with its banged up linebackers will be able to stop it consistently. Maybe I'm overreacting because I can't get the memories of 20-play drives out of my head from the second half of games last year. But if Florida makes it its business to run the ball all day, is the Vol defense good enough to stop it for sixty minutes? Or will the Gators keep Tyler Bray off the field and wear us out late?
For this and about a thousand other reasons, it would be really good if the Vols jumped Florida early. Get the Gators down and keep your foot on the gas, and they can't control tempo and just run right at us. Texas A&M was up 17-7 in the second quarter and still lost because they couldn't go any further. If Dooley is true to his word, the Vols will not slow down for any reason.
Or hey, maybe Florida will come out and put it on Driskel's shoulders. Fine by me.
2. Tackling in Space
Why did we get beat last year, aside from Justin Hunter's ACL? Because we couldn't tackle Florida's athletes in space. Don't believe me? Watch here.
Though this isn't Urban Meyer or Dan Mullen's offense coming at us Saturday night, it's still a bunch of realquickfast guys that will absolutely make you pay if you miss tackles. One of the most noticeable changes from Justin Wilcox to Sal Sunseri has been UT's ability to wrap up and put guys on the ground (the existence of halftime adjustments hasn't been bad either). That ability was diminished significantly without Curt Maggitt and Herman Lathers on the field last week, and it'll be the linebackers who will have the first shot at a lot of these guys. However close Maggitt and Lathers actually are to 100%, both will absolutely play, and both must continue to lead the way for the Vol defense. The Vols simply did not miss tackles against NC State. You can miss tackles against Georgia State, shake your head, and go on to the next play. You miss tackles against Florida, it's a touchdown.
This can be especially critical on a thin defense in the fourth quarter, even more so if Florida commits to the run and puts the Vol defensive front on the field for extended stretches at a time. Tennessee can negate that by continuing to improve in their key defensive areas - turnovers, sacks, third downs allowed, big plays allowed, all of which have been better so far this year - but one third down or one big play can swing this whole thing late in the game. As Spencer Hall pointed out on our podcast last night, it's really an amazing thing to consider that Florida got sacked eight times and still won last week. It's not all about flashy plays defensively. It's very important for the Vols to be fundamentally sound on every down, get off the field, and get Bray back on it. We shouldn't need the defense to win the game for us. We just need them to tackle.
3. Who else catches the football?
Tennessee fans remember Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington, and Jason Witten. But they also remember Bobby Graham because he caught seven passes in the 2001 showdown with the Gators, a game Tennessee absolutely does not win without him. When that Florida team - with guys like Lito Sheppard and Keiwan Ratliff - went to stop that Tennessee team, the Vols had to have a fourth option step up, and Graham was it. This Gator secondary isn't as good as that one, and this Tennessee passing attack could be in the same category as what we saw eleven years ago. But what we don't know is who will be playing the role of Bobby Graham.
Florida may not be able to stop Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson for a significant number of snaps. But when the Gators disguise coverage, blitz their brains out, or do anything else to try to confuse Bray or force the ball somewhere else, who will that somewhere else be? Zach Rogers was awesome against NC State but did nothing against Georgia State (granted, only 20 passes were attempted by the first team offense). Mychal Rivera looked good last week and played well against Florida last year, how involved will he be? There's Jacob Carter, there's Jason Croom, there's (possibly) Pig Howard. And there are the running backs as well.
Maybe Bray goes to ten different targets again, who knows? But if Florida's defense is playing well, the Vols will need someone other than Hunter and CP to get this done. Who's it going to be?
4. Touchdowns Not Field Goals
The Second Rule of Tennessee-Florida. This rule cost Florida in 1998, Tennessee in 2000, Florida in 2001, Florida in 2004, Tennessee in 2006, Tennessee in 2009, and Tennessee last year. You cannot settle in this game.
Tennessee especially so, because though I love Derrick Brodus and am thrilled a kid from Alcoa has a chance to make a meaningful impact on this game, I'm not so sure I want that impact to be more meaningful than 35 yards. And I'd love it if said impact was limited to perfection on PATs.
We've said here many times that Derek Dooley is more aggressive than you think he is. His personality doesn't suggest it and our talent hasn't been strong enough to really see it pay off, but last year the Vols went for it on fourth down 28 times in 12 games, 10th nationally. The Vols have already gone for it on fourth down four times this year. Given Dooley's history, the history of this rivalry, and the situation with our kickers, don't be surprised to see Dooley roll the dice and go for six instead of three.
This puts it back on Bray's shoulders to not just get us close, but get us in. We've seen some hero throws from Bray before that have cost the Vols a chance at points. So far this year Bray hasn't sniffed an INT. Under the bright lights against a fast SEC defense, can he stay calm and composed and finish the drive?
Or hey, maybe we're going to score all of our touchdowns on big plays. Again, fine by me.
5. Carry the fight to Florida and keep it there for sixty minutes
Derek Dooley, these players, and this team are still writing their own story. If Tennessee wants to be defined not by continued misery but a return to glory, the Vols must go through Florida. This story will not be finished until this season is over, but its most important chapter so far will be written Saturday night.
A win for Tennessee - any win by any margin against Florida - would be the most important victory since the Vols beat Kentucky in four overtimes to win the SEC East five years and several lifetimes ago. And because of the opponent, it would feel even better than that.
Does this team have what it takes to beat the Gators?
Here's what we still don't know: I don't know how this team will respond if it gets behind. I don't know how this team will respond in a close game in the fourth quarter.
Florida answered both of those questions last week on the road, giving the Gators an advantage there. But confidence is best learned through experience, and the Vols could very well have a chance to earn both in this one.
If the Vols come out and dominate, don't worry, we'll enjoy it plenty. If we've got what it takes to dictate the pace to them and we go up and down the field all night long, hallelujah. But the more likely scenario of a close, tight game will both produce and reveal a lot of character in this football team. Do the Vols have what it takes?
Tyler Bray and the passing game led the way in bringing us here, and we hope to dance with them all night. Will it win the day?
There's no better way to scratch a seven year itch than flying in the face of everything this series is supposed to be about.
One final thought: enjoy the weekend. This is a legitimate big game, and we haven't had one in a while. It's been eight years for College Gameday and six for a game between ranked foes in Neyland Stadium. As we've all learned these past four years, nothing is automatic and we took a lot for granted. Enjoy Saturday. Go to the Walk. Sing Rocky Top. Enjoy what being a Tennessee fan is supposed to feel like.
And then get inside and get ready. All of Knoxville will take a deep breath at 6:07 PM Saturday night. I hope to spend sixty minutes and the rest of the season letting it all out.