The Tennessee Volunteers (2-1) are set to face off against a very familiar opponent in the 11th-ranked Florida Gators (2-1) on Saturday. The game kicks off SEC play for the Vols, but the Gators are already one game ahead thanks to their clash with the Alabama Crimson Tide last week.
The Vols have lost 15 of the last 16 games against the Gators, but anything is possible during a rivalry game. Even if you’re a 19-point underdog. I’m looking at you, Tennessee.
Does Tennessee have what it takes to get Josh Heupel a signature win in his fourth game as head coach of the Vols?
- All-time series: The Gators lead the all-time series, 30-20. Just six of the last 20 matchups have been decided by 7 points or less.
- Largest margin of victory: Tennessee throttled Florida, 45-3, back in 1990.
- Longest win streak: The Gators won 11 straight games from 2005-2015.
- 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 57th-ranked offense (96th passing, 23rd rushing) and the 18th-best defense (67th passing, 5th rushing). They average 42.7 points per game and have allowed an average of 15.7 points per game. The Gators have the eighth-best offense (79th passing, 2nd rushing) and the 49th-best defense (80th passing, 28th rushing). They average 35.3 points per game on offense and have allowed an average of 21.7 points per game.
What To Watch For
- Florida’s rushing attack vs. Tennessee’s rushing defense: The Gators have 1,009 rushing yards and average 7.6 yards per carry through the first three games of the year. The Vols run defense has been rather stout to start the season. Tennessee’s front seven completely shut down Pittsburgh’s running game to where the Panthers running backs had just 76 yards on 31 carries, good for a putrid 2.45 yards per carry. It’s strength-on-strength, which always makes for must-see viewing.
- Joe Milton’s margin for error (or Hendon Hooker’s): Heupel hasn’t let on to who will play quarterback on Saturday - nor should he. When he does finally make the announcement, it’s fair to wonder how thin the margin of error will be.
- The return of Cooper Mays: The relationship between whomever is playing quarterback and the center has been rocky at best since Mays went down during the season opener. Heupel said Wednesday that he anticipates Mays to return to the lineup against Florida. That’s huge news. Mays’ return should bring a lot of stability to the front five, which will help a lot.
- The Anthony Richardson Experiment: Oh boy. You wanna talk about an athlete? Richardson is the primo definition of the word. He’s currently dealing with a hamstring issue that kept him out of last week’s game against Alabama. Richardson was medically cleared to play, but Dan Mullen and the staff played it safe and kept him off the field. They do expect Richardson to play this week, however. So the Vols better be ready.
- Third down defense: The Vols have the 12th-best third down defense in the NCAA. Opponents are converting just 28% of their third downs while the Gators are allowing a 41% conversion rate, which places them at 89 in terms of third down defense. Converting as many third downs as possible is key. Especially in a game where field position will be more important than usual.
- Quarterback: Whether it’s Milton or Hooker, they must be at their best. Because this is SEC play and there will be little-to-nothing held back. The real season starts Saturday.
- RB Tiyon Evans: Evans made his return last week, and the Vols are going to need Evans’ speed and play-making ability in the biggest of ways on Saturday.
- WR Velus Jones Jr.: The senior receiver looked like he got on track after a slow, dinged-up start to the season (three catches for 31 yards over the first two games), displaying his superb run-after-the-catch ability. Can he carry that over into this game?
- DL Matthew Butler: The Vols are going to have to be stout up front and that starts with Butler.
- Reserve linebackers: If Juwan Mitchell can’t go, Jeremy Banks, Aaron Beasley and Solon Page will all move up a peg on the depth chart. That would be a big task headed down to The Swamp.
- CB Alontae Taylor: If Taylor can take away Copeland, then it will help the Vols focus on the run even more, which is obviously a good thing at the end of the day.
- Quarterback: If it’s Emory Jones, the Vols need to do everything they can to make him beat them with his legs. But it’s a different story if it’s Richardson. This could end up being a big advantage for Florida when it’s all said and done.
- RB Malik Davis: There are two other options to choose from. The Gators have three good backs, but Davis is the best of the three. He may not be as good a receiver as Dameon Pierce, but Davis can still catch and is a better runner.
- WR Jacob Copeland: Remember this guy? Florida doesn’t throw the ball much, but Copeland is the guy to go to when they do. He leads the team in receiving yards (200), receptions (7), yards per catch (28.6), and touchdowns (2).
- DL Zachery Carter: He’s off to a quick start with 3.5 sacks and will go up against a dinged-up Cade Mays (if he plays) and Darnell Wright, who is still getting accustomed to his new position.
- LB Jeremiah Moon: The redshirt senior is tied for the second-most tackles and is an overall playmaker at the second level. He can rush the passer, defend the run, and drop back in coverage. What more can you ask for?
- S Kalir Elam: The nephew of former Gator Matt Elam, Kalir is a ballhawkin’ safety who has the team’s lone interception of 2021.
Outside of 2016, nothing has really ever gone right for the Vols in this series and it doesn’t look like things are going to change much this year.
Tennessee does have a chance to catch Florida off-guard thanks to last week’s heart-aching loss to Alabama. Not only will be the Gators be riding the emotional wave that comes with a loss, but they could get wrapped up in the conversation that’s surrounded the team since the game ended last Saturday. Most are regarding the Gators in a high fashion after they hung with ‘Bama. There’s a chance this could creep into the kid’s heads and to them, they should handle UT since they hung with ‘Bama.
But there’s also the chance that they are even more focused and determined to get that rematch in the SEC Championship Game and the journey to get there starts with a win over the Vols, Honestly, based off the last decade, this scenario seems more likely. But you can’t rule anything out when it comes to these two teams.
The trenches are what’s most concerning for Tennessee. You have to be able to win up front and as of now, the Vols aren’t built to do that on a consistent basis. They still have to show that they can stay away from committing the big penalties and mistakes, too.
The good news is that Florida makes mistakes, too. If the Vols can force them into making mistakes, then that will go a long way toward keeping the game close. But the Vols also have trouble forcing mistakes, evidenced by their zero forced fumbles and the fact that they didn’t record an interception until last week.
At the end of the day, the Vols just don’t have enough. The game should be closer than Vegas thinks, but expect Tennessee to come out of this with a .500 record through four weeks of play.