Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer has made it clear. How Jeremy Pruitt’s 2018 Vols football team stacks up against Florida, Georgia and Alabama will be the measuring stick for a successful program.
The Vols will get their first opportunity in that vein when they host the Gators on September 22nd at Neyland Stadium. It’s conceivable both teams could enter that game 3-0. The Gators host Charleston Southern, Kentucky and Colorado State prior to their trip to Knoxville.
If Tennessee can get by what could be a very good West Virginia team in the opener, wins over ETSU and UTEP seem likely.
Dan Mullen, former Mississippi State head coach for 9 seasons (69-46, 5-2 in bowl games), takes over in Gainesville after Jim McElwain was shown the door. Mullen served as the Gators’ Offensive Coordinator from 2005-08.
Not surprisingly, the Gators’ fanbase is restless and expecting big things from Mullen. However, Florida has some serious question marks in key positions that Mullen will have to address in short order.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks returns for the Gators after an inconsistent 2017. Franks completed less than 55 percent of his passes last season with only nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Georgia four star recruit Emory Jones has the passing and running ability that Mullen, who has groomed a number of quarterbacks in his career, is looking for in a starter. He could end up as the signal caller unless Franks shows better results.
Leading the rushing game should be Jordan Scarlett, (889 yds, 6 TDs as a sophomore), before being suspended as one of nine players involved in a credit card fraud scheme in 2017.
Junior Lamical Perine returns to the backfield that could be loaded. He had eight touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season. Four star recruits Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement could also contribute. Scarlett’s contribution could be the key with the quarterback position in question.
The receiving corp returns Tyrie Cleveland, who led the team with 22 catches, 410 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2017. Kadarius Toney and Dre Massey return and add depth and versatility to a unit that could show some promise this year.
The offensive line returns intact. Returning left tackle Martez Ivey should add some leadership.
New Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham is changing the scheme over to a 3-4. The change could be to play to the strength of outside linebacker Cece Jefferson who also serves as a strong edge rusher. Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton will also add to a good linebacker group.
The secondary could be the group to watch for Florida. That group will be led by C.J. Henderson, who had 4 interceptions in 2017 and returned two of those for touchdowns. Safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. anchors that position and returns after a strong 2017 season.
After opening with three straight at home, the Gators have four of the first five on the road against SEC opponents starting with the Vols — a challenging mid-season schedule for sure.