The Vols (1-2) will hit the road for the first time on Saturday, as they travel down to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators (2-0) in The Swamp.
Not only does it mark the first road game of the 2019 season, but it’s also Tennessee’s first SEC game. UT lost its first two games - something that has happened since 1988 - but a win against Florida would immediately change the current outlook/perception of the team.
But in order to win, the Vols will need to make some big improvements in certain areas. Which areas will be the most crucial to an upset bid?
1. The Pass Protection Must Hold Up
Sometimes, you don’t have to read between the lines when it comes to the stat sheet. Especially when the team your facing is the best in the country at a certain skill.
Yep, the Gators lead the nation with 16 sacks through their first three games. Three players have multiple sacks and 13 players have at least a half sack on the season, which is proof that Florida’s pass rush can come from anywhere on the field.
It’s absolutely imperative that both the offensive line and Tennessee’s backs (looking at you, Eric Gray) find a way to keep Guarantano upright on Saturday. Tennessee simply cannot beat the Gators on the ground.
Granted, Guarantano has to get rid of the ball and get through his reads much quicker, but this will be the biggest test of the season in terms of a defensive front. Allowing Guarantano time to throw would open up the offense and throw the Gators’ defense off track, which can mean good things for Tennessee at the end of the day.
2. Bryce Thompson’s Return
This should be an immediate boost for the secondary. It’s not like they were struggling, but Thompson is considered the best player in the defensive backfield. Hopefully he shows why on Saturday.
But how much will he actually play? Jeremy Pruitt spoke about practice time - Thompson returned last week but didn’t play against UTC - and there is always the curiosity of whether or not he will be in playing shape, however, when you have a player of this kid’s caliber on the field, it should help no matter the capacity.
One player who will be glad to see him back is sophomore corner Alontae Taylor. He’s struggled a bit going back to 2018 and infamously allowed the pass completion that eventually led to BYU’s win a couple of weeks ago.
Thompson’s return will certainly be something to monitor Saturday.
3. Dual Quarterbacks
Dan Mullen said earlier in the week that he plans on playing both Kyle Trask and Emory Jones on Saturday. The saying usually goes, “if you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one”, but it’s never guaranteed that mantra holds up in the long run.
It doesn’t seem like Mullen will be afraid to let either quarterback loose. Trask threw the ball on 15/23 plays against Kentucky. Jones is more of a threat to run the ball, but that ability should give him some chances to make some big throws in the game.
Both quarterbacks have combined for just 60 pass attempts over the past two years, so there isn’t much tape for the Vols to rely on. Jeremy Pruitt and co. should have a decent game plan dialed up, but it will be up to the execution of the players to get it done.
The biggest thing is to prevent either quarterback from getting in any kind of a rhythm. That, in turn, would prevent the Gators’ offense from getting into a rhythm, which could breed mistakes. If the Vols can make that happen and give the offense a short field to work with, it would help immensely.