By now, we’ve all heard that the Tennessee Volunteers outplayed the Auburn Tigers in many facets when they met two weeks ago from Saturday. That’s all well and good, but the team still lost by 13 points, which is perhaps more troubling than simply being outplayed. All the Auburn game does is further convolute the picture being pasted together by Pruitt and Co.
After the Tennessee and Vanderbilt game was rescheduled in order to work out the logistics of the rest of the SEC season, the Vols shifted their attention to the Florida Gators. With two weeks to prepare, the hope is that Tennessee can remain competitive in some capacity. But a two-week layoff hasn’t resulted in a big payday for the Vols thus far, with their two bye weeks ultimately resulting in losses to Arkansas in a second half implosion, and, of course, the Auburn debacle November 21.
Now the SEC East leaders come to Knoxville Saturday in a game that normally takes place over two months earlier. But as it stands now, the Gators come into Saturday with a 7-1 record, with their only loss being a close 41-38 affair to the Texas A&M Aggies at College Station.
The silver lining heading into Saturday’s game is that Florida’s potent offense has stumbled a little bit the last two weeks, with a 38-17 win at Vanderbilt and a 34-10 victory against Kentucky. We’re still talking about three touchdown victories for the Gators, but when you compare those games to their earlier outputs, like hanging 63 on Arkansas in mid-November, Florida’s offense seems a bit more manageable.
As it stands on the Monday of this writing, Tennessee’s currently 17-point dogs. At DraftKings, those partial to Tennessee could get the Vols at +17.5, a number worth considering. I suspect, however, many expect Florida to cover, especially given Tennessee’s propensity to collapse in the second half.
All that said, the expectation for Vols’ fans this weekend isn’t to win. The expectation is to see improvements. Nobody expects Tennessee to outplay Florida in the same way they did Auburn, but if they reach a fraction of that output, a loss of two touchdowns or less would be a moral victory. At the end of the day, it’s actual wins that matter, but the Vols seem largely incapable of that this season.
At the beginning of the season, I thought the Florida game would be Tennessee’s best shot to pull an upset. Now it’s becoming increasingly apparent that their only shot might’ve been at Georgia, right before the team entered a death spiral.
If Tennessee can avoid turning the ball over and pass with some efficiency, then we’ll leave somewhat pleased with the output. We already know that the tandem of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler can run the ball effectively; that fact will be made doubly so if whoever’s quarterbacking this team can make the opposition think a little bit more about the pass. At this juncture, opposing teams can sell out for the run on seemingly every play, thus rendering the Tennessee offense largely ineffective.
Much like their in-state professional counterpart, the Vols have struggled greatly on stopping opposing offenses on third down. At the current rate, opponents are converting third downs at a 50 percent clip, dwarfing Tennessee’s own conversion rate of 32 percent. In order to reach any semblance of success on Saturday, then Tennessee will have to show a greater inclination towards stopping Florida’s offense whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Despite the recent on-field trends of these two teams, I suspect we’ll hear many of the same remarks at the conclusion of Saturday’s game: “Guarantano gives us the best chance to win,” “We’re not making plays and that’s on me,” and, when asked about addressing fan concerns about the direction of the program, “That’s not my job.”
Oh, and one final hope: That we see Harrison Bailey much more than we have been.