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Florida: A Season of Silence

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Gandhi famously said, "Speak only if it improves upon the silence."

Jalen Tabor has yet to experience such content in a space that did not include his voice.

In fact, in the past 11 months since Florida’s 28-27 victory over UT, Tabor’s Gators have understood any silence to be an invitation to express their innermost thoughts 140 characters at a time. But Tabor is no mere social media warrior; he raises his loquacious game with journalists and on the field to grandmaster levels of one clearly schooled in the Shaq-Fu arts of self-promotion. But here’s the thing before we get all old and cranky where Tabor is concerned: Winners get to say whatever they please.

Fourth and fourteen. Point to the scoreboard. Eleven years straight.

Silence.

And after the silence, more Tabor.

"I mean, I don't know how many times you have to beat somebody over 10 years plus in a row for them to just really own up. It's just, I mean, I've never been beaten 11 years in a row by one team or one person, so I wouldn't know how that feels. But it's talked about a lot."

Winners can appropriate a decade's worth of history as if it’s their own possession. After all, the Tabor-led Gators haven’t won eleven years in a row, but to them it feels like they have and that is all that matters.

The 2016 Florida Gators will be the same horror it has been since 2004…until they are not. Since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, Florida has been the class of the East, winning at least a share of the division title twelve times, topping even Alabama’s eleven. Due to Florida's continued dominance, RTT has named this the Vols’ most important game.

If the Gators are going to return to Atlanta in 2016, then things have to improve on offense. Last year’s unit was on the wrong side of the top 100, averaging 23.2 points a game (ranked 100th nationally), gained a meager 334 total yards (111th), including just under 127 rushing yards per contest (112th). Five starters return, so plenty of questions remain unanswered, the first and foremost of which is presumed starter at quarterback, Luke Del Rio (RS soph) a transfer from Oregon State. Will Grier has transferred to West Virginia and presumably taken his Steve Rogers super-serum with him. Also gone via transfer is last year’s backup quarterback Treon Harris who was serving an indefinite suspension but had recently been allowed to re-enroll. Del Rio will be challenged by Purdue transfer Austin Appleby and eventual heir-apparent Felipe Franks (four-star freshman). Running back brings the same questions, as Kelvin Taylor left for the NFL and two sophomores Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite will try hold off top JUCO back Mark Thompson, a load at 6’2, 242 pounds.

The wide receiver unit looked to be in good shape before the off-season hit. Antonio Callaway, top receiver and returner – he of 4th and 14 fame – was suspended indefinitely (with Treon Harris) and as yet has not been confirmed to be a part of the 2016 squad. Second-leading receiver Brandon Powell missed the spring with foot surgery. Tyrie Cleveland, # 2 wide receiver in the 2016 class, along with fellow freshman Rick Wells, could miss significant time after being arrested and charged on two felony counts of destroying property with a BB gun. The status of both is still unclear with camp on the horizon. The offensive line does return three starters, and one clear sign of progress in the McElwain era is that Gators linemen no longer block one another.

The Florida defense is intimidating as usual, as six starters anchor a unit that allowed the eighth fewest total yards in the nation. However, some of the bite left the Gators in their final three games as they allowed 97 total points in losses to Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan. Tabor leads the defensive backs, who also return Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye. The defensive line has to replace Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister, but Florida rarely lacks talent in the trenches. This year junior DT Caleb Brantley is surrounded by pass rushers Bryan Cox, Jr., CeCe Jefferson, Keivonnis Davis, along with incoming top Gator recruit Antonneous Clayton.

Perhaps no team needed a kicker than the Gators, since Florida went 7-of-17 on field goal attempts last year. Eddy Pineiro is expected to lock down placekicking duties and gained national attention during his recruitment for a 77-yard field goal in practice. Johnny Townsend returns as the punter, yet the Florida return game will need depth until Callaway’s absence and Powell’s recovery is clear.

Florida certainly could surprise again this year just as last. They have a favorable schedule with seven home games, including a big contest with LSU, and they face Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Florida State on the road.

And then there’s that little trip to Knoxville. When the Gators head up to Rocky Top, they’ll likely be 3-0 after home games against UMass, Kentucky, and North Texas. Tennessee should be primed, too, after a tune-up against Ohio the previous week. From now until then, expect it to remain silent from the Vols end. Like Jalen Reeves-Maybin said in response to the latest round of taunts, "Some guys talk, and some guys just play. It’s just a personal preference."

The Vols will have no lack of bulletin board ammunition and firepower on the field this year. This game will largely determine not only the SEC East champs but also who endures a season of silence.