A third of the way into our season, the names you would expect are showing up most often in this weekly feature (full chart at the bottom). So there are plenty of familiar names on the docket again this week as the Florida Gators come to town:
Will Shelton - Justin Worley
Not just from a "please stay healthy" standpoint, but because Worley showed his ability to make the plays necessary to win a game like this one on the road in Athens. Saturday surpassed both last year's Georgia game and this year's Utah State game as Worley's best performance, 23 of 35 for 264 yards (7.5 YPA) with three touchdowns and no interceptions. And then when you see not just Blake Sims' numbers against Florida (23 of 33 for 445 with four touchdowns and one pick), but Kentucky's Patrick Towles' as well (24 of 45 for 369 with three of each), you can believe the Vols will have their chances to make plays in the passing game against Florida. I'm obviously a fan of the larger narrative at play here with Worley, a gritty senior who's been through all of the downs with Dooley and is the now guy behind the wheel as the Vols get ready to make the turn. I'd love nothing more than to see him lead Tennessee to its first win over Florida in a decade, and I think he's going to have every shot to do just that.
Incipient_Senescence - Jalen Hurd
Florida's secondary has had some serious problems this year, but their front seven still has lots of talent, and if they can pin their ears back and attack the quarterback, they might be able to cover some of their problems on the back end. The Vols need a threat to keep them from being able to pin their ears back and attack the quarterback. Ordinarily, given how bad the line is, I would say that's the screen game, but Von Pearson and Josh Smith are both gimpy, and they're Tennessee's two main targets on screens. But in the last two weeks, Jalen Hurd has shown an ability to make plays no matter how bad the offensive line is, and the timing couldn't be better. He needs to make plays this week to take the pressure off Worley. Win the rushing battle, win the game.
Kid Bourbon - Marquez North
Don't tell me Florida has a good pass defense. Alabama put 449 passing yards on Florida. Kentucky added 369 passing yards and they're merely ostensibly SEC.* And so just don't even try telling me that Florida has a good pass defense.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, what are we going to do about it? Well, hopefully we're going to get the ball to Marquez North A LOT. The importance of Marquez North here is magnified by the may or may not play status of Von Pearson. I wish Von were playing, but that doesn't appear to be a sure thing, and if he doesn't then our best receiver is going to need to get emphasized that much more. Get after 'em, Marquez.
Chris Pendley - Cameron Sutton
I'm not slacking on picking on him this time! Also, this game shapes up like the Utah State/Arkansas State games in that Florida appears to have one good receiver in Damarcus Robinson (even though Quinton Dunbar's on his fifteenth year of eligibility). So, let's do what we do best: stick Cam Sutton on the good guy and wait until Jeff Driskel gets impatient and goes at him.
That happened twice against Georgia; Mason went 1-2 in completing passes to Sutton and would've gone 2-2 had he gotten the other pass within five yards. I can only hope Driskel recognizes the success Mason had in getting the ball to Sutton and decides to do so with aplomb.
BONUS EXTRA ASSIST: Kyle Christy's a scary good punter. Fair catches might save 10-15 yards of field position a pop, and I'm ...kind of assuming he'll get some practice.
Joel Hollingsworth - Butch Jones
Yes, I looked to make sure this was "Most Important Vol" and not "Most Important Player." For the past several years of this horrid nine-year stretch against the Gators, the game has been as much about banshing hoodoo as it has the contest between the current teams. There is some "it" about this game and this opponent that gets under our skin like no other. We've had our shots at vulnerable Florida teams before, but then Justin Hunter gets hurt early, or Derek Dooley is coaching, or Sal Sunseri is systematically destroying our defense, or we decide we have no better choice but to start a quarterback with no game experience in The Swamp. Whatever. When we respond to Florida looking like a steaming pile of mess by being a bigger pile, that's hoodoo.
Now sure, most of our current players are new and don't have the PTSD flashbacks that plagues us fans. But our senior leaders have it, and 102,455 in the stands have it, and I'm betting even the youngins will hear the crowd's collective gasp at the first sign of bewitching. It's up to Butch to knock that sucker back and keep it from affecting the players. Starting now. Keep it at bay throughout the game, even when it leaves and returns with friends and attacks the circled wagons from all angles. Break the spell, Butch.
Hunter Turner - Curt Maggitt
There will be players on the field against Florida who are more important to the scheme, like quarterback Justin Worley; there will be coaches on the sideline who are more important in team training and preparation, like head coach Butch Jones; but there will not be a more important Vol against Florida than the still beating emotional heart of this Tennessee team, Curt Maggitt. Nine years is a long time to go without a win against a purported rival, and four years is an eternity without a winning season for a proud program like Tennessee-- if the young Vols are going to take the next step in their development, they'll need to play with the same kind of poise they showed against Oklahoma and Georgia for all four quarters. Make no mistake about it: the 2014 Florida Gators are the kind of bad football team who can still give an opponent fits. If Tennessee lets the emotion of the crowd and the violence of Florida overwhelm them, Saturday's game could devolve into an ugly, turnover filled mess that will leave Gator partisans crowing and save awful head coach Will Muschamp for another week.
The 2014 Vols are a better football team than the 2014 Gators: they are more capably led, more efficiently trained, and more cohesive and precise in execution; but they are not more talented, at least not yet. Muschamp must know that he cannot beat this Tennessee team unless they beat themselves, so he will have his players primed to start and escalate trouble, to take cheap shots at knocking Worley out of the game, and to indulge in extracurriculars after the whistle. The Vols must be prepared to weather the play of a dirty opponent and stay poised, with Curt Maggitt leading by example. If Maggitt keeps his young charges positive, energized, and under control, Tennessee will win going away. If he lets youthful anger lead to retaliation and mental mistakes, the Vols are in for a long, tense afternoon.