Head Coach: Dan Mullen (10-3, 79-49 overall)
2018 record: 10-3
Returning Starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
The year was 2003.
George W. Bush was still in his first term, Nick Saban was leading LSU to a national championship, Dan Mullen was coaching quarterbacks at Utah and Jeremy Pruitt was an assistant coach at Fort Payne High School.
Tennessee also beat Florida in Gainesville, something that hasn’t been done since.
For nearly three decades the Tennessee-Florida game has signaled the opening of SEC play, outside of a couple of instances, and this season will be no different as both teams begin their conference slate against each other.
The Gators ran away with last season’s contest, thanks in part to six Tennessee turnovers in a 47-21 win, but the Vols will be looking to score a milestone win by beating Florida in ‘The Swamp’ for the first time since 2003, and only the second time overall since 2004.
Both Florida and Tennessee broke in new head coaches last season, with the Gators’ Dan Mullen finishing with 10 wins and a New Years Six Bowl victory over Michigan.
Here’s a look at who the Vols will line up against on Sept. 21 in Gainesville:
Coaching: Dan Mullen was considering taking over in Knoxville after the firing of Butch Jones by former athletic director John Currie, but Mullen’s former boss at Mississippi State, Scott Stricklin came calling and Mullen ended up in the Sunshine State instead.
In nine seasons in Starkville, Mullen had taken Mississippi State from the cellar of the SEC to a worthy opponent, even leading the Bulldogs to their first No. 1 ranking in program history back in 2014.
Once Mullen returned to Gainesville, where he served as an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer from 2005-2008, all eyes were on what he could do with Florida-caliber talent.
Save for two head-scratching losses to Kentucky and Missouri, Mullen did not disappoint, winning 10 games and improving a Florida offense that had struggled since Meyer’s departure in 2010.
While the Gators will have some questions heading into 2019, the weapons are there for Mullen and company to build on a successful inaugural campaign.
Offense: If you want to see how much of an impact Dan Mullen made on Florida in his first year, look no further than the Gators’ improvement on the offensive side of the ball.
In 2018, Florida averaged 35 points and nearly 450 yards per game. The year before under Jim McElwain the Gators averaged 22 points and just 320 yards in a 4-7 season. It was also the first time since 2014 that Florida finished as a top 30 team nationally in scoring.
Perhaps the most impressive improvement came from quarterback Feleipe Franks. As a redshirt freshman in 2017, Franks was abysmal, throwing for just 9 scores compared to 8 interceptions. He was also benched throughout the season.
Flash forward to 2018 under Mullen’s tutelage and Franks threw for over a thousand more yards (2,457 compared to 1,438 in 2017) with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Even more impressive was his newfound running ability, which paid off with 350 yards and 7 scores on the ground.
It wasn’t all perfect for Franks last season, however. Florida’s offense sputtered in a loss to Kentucky, posting just 16 points on the Wildcats, and then again in a blowout loss to Missouri at home. Franks was benched in the Missouri loss, while backup Kyle Trask finished the game.
The following week, Florida fell behind to South Carolina 31-14 in the fourth quarter, and it looked like the Gators hadn’t gotten it figured out yet. Franks lead Florida in a come-from-behind 35-31 win, and seemingly didn’t look back for an impressive individual finish to the season.
At running back, the Gators should have one of the better units in the SEC, despite losing Jordan Scarlett to the draft.
Florida returns leading rusher LeMical Perine who ran for 826 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. Behind him is a solid group consisting of Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. Davis was one of the Gators’ top offensive performers in 2017 before an injury. Him being healthy in 2019 could really complete the running back corps.
Without a doubt, Florida’s most experienced and lethal unit is at wide receiver. While none of the receivers recorded eye-popping numbers last season (Van Jefferson, the leading WR had 503 yards) the unit has proven talent.
Jefferson, who played at Ole Miss before transferring to Florida last season, became a huge factor later in the season with the improvement of Franks. Alongside him is Josh Hammond, former Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes, Kadarious Toney, Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland.
Toney can be a threat just about anywhere on the field and Cleveland, who was injured versus Florida State, is a deep threat that Tennessee fans know all too well.
Definitely Florida’s biggest question mark coming into the season is the offensive line. Last season, the Gators’ benefited from having all five of their starting line return. Four of the five are gone, and Mullen will have to break in a largely new group.
Defense: While Florida has struggled to duplicate the days of Spurrier and the Fun ‘N Gun, the Gators’ defense has remained fairly consistent. That should be the case again in 2019.
Florida switched to a 3-4 defense in 2018 under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and ended up with 37 total sacks. The defensive line returns three starters and should still be a force to be reckoned with in SEC play.
At linebacker, Florida returns just one starter in David Reese. Reese missed the first three games due to injury last season, but his return proved big for the Gators’ defense. Still, they’ll have to find a replacement in top tackler Vosean Joseph who left for the NFL.
Defensive back should be another strong group for the Gators in 2019. Florida returns nearly everyone in the secondary, including corner Marco Wilson who went down with an ACL injury in week two. C.J. Henderson, who had two interceptions and 7 pass breakups last season, should once again make a huge impact.
Outlook: Going to Gainesville is never easy, as evidenced by Tennessee’s lack of success there in the last 15 years. Florida should improve on offense if their offensive line can grow up fast. But, Tennessee’s defense should see improvement as well. While the Gators have controlled this rivalry, the Vols have come very close to changing the tides on several occasions.