It’s that time of year once again. SEC play is here for Tennessee, meaning it’s time to face the Florida Gators to kick things off. It’s Florida’s turn to come to Knoxville, where they’ll meet the 11th ranked team in the country. College Gameday will be setup and ready to roll on Saturday morning, while Neyland Stadium will be checkered and ready to rock.
There won’t be a better atmosphere in college football on Saturday, as Tennessee looks to exorcise some demons. The Gators have won 16 of the last 17 against the Volunteers. At this point, it seems like a mental hurdle Tennessee has to get over. They won’t have a better opportunity to do that than Saturday.
With that said, it’s a new era in the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. Josh Heupel is now in his second try in the matchup, set to infuse some offense and tempo onto the Tennessee side. For Florida, it will be Billy Napier’s first appearance in the rivalry.
So what do we know about these new-look Gators? Well, they’ll probably go as far as quarterback Anthony Richardson can carry them. Billed as a Heisman candidate in the preseason, Richardson has struggled to open the year. Richardson has thrown for just over 400 yards in three games, paired with four interceptions and no touchdown passes. His rushing ability is capable of changing games, as it did in Florida’s upset of No. 7 Utah to open the year.
“First of all, he can throw the football,” Heupel said on Monday. “He can do that on the move. He can do it from inside the pocket. He’s big, physical, imposing. You have to bottle him up in the quarterback-run game. At the same time, as you’re trying to apply pressure, when they’re dropping back to throw it, he’s got the ability to make you pay, if you don’t have rush integrity inside your pass-rush lanes. We’ve done a better job this year than we did a year ago, but that’s going to be a critical part of the football game.”
Tennessee has faced just one test this year defensively, but they passed with flying colors. It was a bit of a slow start, but Tim Banks’ group eventually wore down Pittsburgh. Banks was aggressive in applying pressure, eventually getting to Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis. After several hits, Slovis was forced out of the game. Backup quarterback Nick Patti faced the same pressure and saw the same result.
Richardson is more dynamic as a runner though, and perhaps less of a threat through the air right now. Pressure will be key, but keeping those lanes filled and having some backup help at linebacker in the form of a spy will be a must. This will be a game of discipline for the Tennessee front seven.
Napier will also throw three backs at Tennessee — Trevor Etienne, Montrell Johnson Jr. and Nay’Quan Wright. It’s been run-heavy for the Gators so far this season, so that Tennessee interior will be tested often. They actually held up pretty well against Pittsburgh, outside of a couple of missed run fits, one that resulted in a 76 yarder.
Defensively, Florida is coming off of a concerning performance against a bad South Florida team. The Gators gave up nearly 300 yards on the ground, almost allowing the Bulls to finish off the upset bid.
Florida was without inside linebacker Ventrell Miller in that contest, and could be without him once again in Knoxville. That’s one to monitor.
Stats are admittedly misleading this time of the year, especially with Florida playing three tough games to this point, but the Gators rank just 77th in total defense right now. They’re surrendering 5.41 yards per play to this point, set to face one of the best offenses in the country on Saturday afternoon.
“Highly skilled,” Heupel said of the Florida defense. “That’s their front four being able to apply pressure and disrupt your run game. Secondary’s long and athletic, like you would anticipate them to be, so there are schematic battles that will be fought on Saturday afternoon, but then there’s one-on-one battles that are going to have to be won by our players out on the field, too.”
Tennessee continues to rehab star receiver Cedric Tillman, hoping to having him available for Saturday. Tillman went down against Akron with a high ankle sprain and did not return. Predictably, the staff has been pretty tight-lipped about the situation. If he’s not able to go, Tennessee is going to have to get the ground game going, which is something that they really haven’t been able to do so far this season with consistency.
As of Wednesday, Tennessee has moved all the way out to a 10.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook. CBS will have the coverage at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.