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Heupel talks Gators to kickoff Florida week

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NCAA Football: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

And now the fun really begins. Tennessee kicks off the SEC slate on Saturday night with a trip down to Gainesville to face the Florida Gators, who are coming off of a hard-fought loss to Alabama.

The Gators, ranked 11th in the country following the loss, serve as the first SEC test for Josh Heupel. On Monday, Heupel previewed the matchup with local media.

“Obviously, their ability to run the football on offense is a huge part, top-5 in the country in rush offense,” Heupel said on Monday. “Defensively, I thought they were physical, tied in all three levels together throughout the course of the day (vs. Alabama). Defensive line was very disruptive. Special teams, they do a really good job as well. They make you beat them, and just watching the game from the other day, obviously had an opportunity for a two-point play at the end to tie it up. It’s a really good football team. Our guys are excited about that challenge.”

The Tennessee defensive front appears improved from last season, under guidance from veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner. However, the Gators pose a different kind of threat with quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. Particularly with Richardson in the game, the Florida rushing attack is really tough to defend.

Richardson missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury, but could return this week.

“I think they do a good job of spacing people out,” Heupel said of the Florida run game. “The quarterback is a huge part of their run game too. The threat of it, and when he has the ball in his hands, he runs like a runner. He’s able to make the first guy miss and able to run through a tackle, too.”

Tennessee will obviously have a challenge on the other side of the ball, set to face their toughest defensive front yet. With so many early injuries, it’s tough to get a gauge on where the Tennessee rushing attack actually is. Cooper Mays has missed two games, while both running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small have missed action.

Quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton also play a role in the run game, but it remains unclear on who will get the go on Saturday night in The Swamp. Whoever does will have a massive challenge ahead of them.

“They’re big, long, athletic, violent,” Heupel said of the Florida defensive front. “They disrupt the line of scrimmage, playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Structurally, I thought their second and third levels fit it extremely well. They tackled well for the most part, during the course of the other day (vs. Alabama). You do those things, it makes it tough to run the football.”