It’s a new era for Tennessee football, which means a new challenge for traditional opponents. The Volunteers have entered the modern era of offensive football, utilizing a spread offense that uses tempo to keep defenses off balance. It’s a huge departure from Tennessee’s attack under Jeremy Pruitt, though we haven’t quite seen it hit full song just yet.
According to Florida head coach Dan Mullen, the effort level is up at Tennessee, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
“Obviously, it’s a huge challenge, big rivalry game for us against Tennessee,” Mullen said on the SEC teleconference on Wednesday. “Watching them, a much-improved team this year. You watch the effort they play with, I mean playing really hard defensively. You watch special teams, you’ve got the guys playing really hard, tough. Really physical group up front, so it’ll be a big challenge for us.”
Obviously, there’s some coach speak going on there. Mullen’s Gators are the 11th ranked team in the country coming off of a narrow loss to top-ranked Alabama. Tennessee is still finding their way, while sorting through several injury situations at key spots.
Still, preparing for Heupel’s attack provides a unique challenge.
“It is a spread it out, play it and snap the ball as fast as you can to get up there,” Mullen said of Heupel’s offense. “Just something different, you gotta practice. It’s hard sometimes to practice the tempo at which they’re going to. What we can’t do is be shocked by the speed of that once the game starts. How fast they’re going to snap the ball. How fast they’re going to get up there and run plays, and how fast we have to get the call, get lined up and be ready to go execute.”
Of course, Tennessee’s big question heading into this one is at the quarterback position. Joe Milton left the Pittsburgh game due to injury, but his inaccurate passing down the field had the offense stuck in the mud. Hendon Hooker came in and offered a steadier option, and frankly outplayed Milton.
Heupel won’t name a starter, at least to the media, keeping both Milton and Hooker on the table for Mullen to prepare for.
“I think you watch them, there’s similarities between the two guys that play,” Mullen said. “They both have experience now and have played in games. Both have strong arms, can push the ball down the field. I know they love to push the ball vertically down the field.”
With Milton in the game, Tennessee did push the ball down the field a great deal. His arm strength can’t be denied, but his downfield accuracy has been non-existent. With Hooker in the game, the offense plays a little more conservatively — a little more in control with perhaps less overall upside.
Whoever gets the call will be a big part of the Tennessee rushing attack, which has been struggling over the last two weeks due to key injuries to center Cooper Mays and running back Jabari Small. Getting that ground game re-established is a must against the Gators, but that will be a tough task against a good front in The Swamp.
“They are good runners when they have the quarterbacks runs call or the zone-read calls when they pull it,” Mullen said. “But to the me the thing that makes them dangerous, what I see, is their ability to extend plays. Their ability when the play breaks down a little bit, their ability to go create something special beyond that and make something happen out there on the field and the explosiveness they’ve been able to do getting outside the offense and creating on their own.”
Tennessee and Florida are set for a 7 p.m. ET kickoff in Gainesville — ESPN will have the broadcast.