This Saturday, Tennessee heads into the Florida game 3-0, as a 10.5-point favorite with a path toward contending for the SEC East on the line.
It’s nice for this game to having real meaning again, beyond that of bragging rights and “talk shit on Twitter,” supremacy.
Florida’s 2-1, though the chatter about “how good are the Gators, really,” has died down a bit following that game-one dub against Utah thanks to a home loss to Kentucky and three-point win over unranked, 1-2 USF. Anthony Richardson still hasn’t thrown a TD pass this year.
Regardless of Tennessee’s borderline criminal levels of ineptitude in this series that dates back nearly two decades, there are guesstimates flying around about the game injecting 150,000 people into the area surrounding UT’s campus by 3:30 tomorrow. The game is and has been sold out, so Danny White announced there would be a watch party in Circle Park, just in case, ya know, somebody didn’t feel like shelling out 3-5 Gs for two tickets. I’m sorry — did you say something? I couldn’t it over the sound of you being broke.
In all seriousness, we hailed the good folks over at Alligator Army for a Q&A about the Gators. It’s been a long time since this game had possible national-scale ramifications for Tennessee, more than just breaking the Florida curse, so we thought it would be nice to get some input from the folks who know the Gators the best.
1) What’s the metaphorical temperature about this team among the Gators’ fanbase? What were the preseason expectations, and how is the squad fairing, just three games into the season?
“Lukewarm, really and truly. Enough of the fan base understands that this is truly a rebuild that Billy Napier has inherited that the spike of the Utah win and the fever breaks of the Kentucky loss and USF near-miss have largely cancelled each other out and returned us to an equilibrium from which bowl eligibility will be a moderate success.
And, frankly, that should be considered a success, given that last year’s team had to drag itself to a bowl by winning a tennis match with Samford and this year’s team is starting a green QB — albeit an unusually talented one.”
2) I rarely hear anything about Florida that isn’t filtered through an Anthony Richardson-styled prism. I’m trying to remember a UF team less heliocentric, at least on the rudimental terms of publicity standards. I’m sure part of that is just me being in Tennessee instead of Gainesville, but is there too much being made about UF’s young QB? Why don’t we hear more about his help? Does he have enough for Florida to make some actual noise?
First off: Those Tebow teams were pretty Tebow-centric, especially in 2009. I don’t think this quite compares to that.
But also: Anthony Richardson is a marvelous player when he’s on, and outside of a couple of running backs — whom we’ll get to — Florida doesn’t have anyone else on offense who has made more than a few plays to catch the eye or hold a conversation about. Tebow was sharing the spotlight with Percy Harvin and so forth; Richardson has Ricky Pearsall ... who would probably be a bigger name had Richardson hit a few more throws in the last two weeks.
Still, that largely anonymous supporting cast was enough help for Richardson to aid in Florida upsetting Utah, and it would probably have been enough to help Richardson beat Kentucky had he played even a mediocre game. Florida is going to go as Richardson goes this fall, but that means more specifically that he can elevate the Gators to wins if he plays well than that he’s going to have to overcome deficiencies; the surrounding talent is good enough for his brilliance to win games, even if it’s not great enough to pick him up routinely.
3) Shoot us three, four or five players, offense/defense/whatever, that Tennessee fans should keep an eye on during the game, please and thank you.
If Richardson is having a great game, chances are no one’s taking their eyes off of him.
But for three more, let’s go with Brenton Cox, whose athleticism is finally getting matched by hustle that can make him a game-wrecker on many downs rather than any given one; Desmond Watson, the key to Florida stopping the run up front; and Trevor Etienne, whose burst is singular among Gators backs, so far as we’ve seen.
4) Florida has four players with more than 100 total rushing yards through just three games. Do you think Napier planned for this season to be won or lost via the rushing attack? Or has that been sorted out for him by the UF throw game?
“I think Napier would prefer to have a potent rush offense most games and seasons — what coach doesn’t? — but is largely playing to Florida’s strengths at present. A 60-40 run-pass ratio isn’t a bad idea even if only considering Florida’s very good offensive line, but the Gators also have better ball-carriers than pass-catchers, and Richardson’s incredible skills as a runner obviously lend themselves to problems for defenses.
The problem for Florida is that the passing game — and especially the lack of a deep threat that can force safeties out of the box — has thus far been anemic enough to negatively affect the running game. Hit a few big plays, and maybe that changes, but we haven’t really seen this team do that as of yet.”
5) Speaking of, Montrell Johnson, Jr., is averaging nearly 10 yards-per-carry and ranks sixth in the SEC in rushing yards. Do you expect him to lead the team in rushing against the Vols?
“I’d expect Etienne to do so if there is carry parity; if Johnson gets at least three or four more touches, it’ll probably be his lead to lose.”
6) Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back and UF RB Trevor Entienne’s brother, Travis Etienne, has been a bit loud on social media regarding Florida’s usage, or lack thereof, of Trevor through the first couple games this year. Does he have a point?
“That said: Etienne getting more touches just to satisfy Travis or other family members isn’t happening. If he does end up with 12-15 carries, or maybe 1ee games, but Etienne’s speed is simply a cut above what we’ve seen from Johnson and Nay’Quan Wright; what he has to do, as a freshman, is demonstrate the adequacies as a blocker and so forth to make him showing up in the huddle more than just a tip-off that he’s getting the rock.”
7) What’s the latest you’ve heard about UF linebacker and leading-tackler Ventrell Miller’s health? Is he gonna play? If he doesn’t, who steps in, and how much does Miller’s absence hurt the team?
“I think Miller probably gives this one a go but can’t go full speed, which probably leaves his snaps to freshman Shemar James and maybe to Scooby Williams or Diwun Black.
If being repeatedly out-leveraged and gashed by USF last week is any indication, Miller’s presence alone might be worth a touchdown or more. He’s a savvy, instinctive player, and Florida truly looked lost without him plugging holes and quarterbacking the defense.”
8) How do you see the game playing out? Hit us with a final-score prediction.
“I think the chances are good that Tennessee wins by a comfortable margin or that Florida guts out a close one; I really am not feeling Tennessee winning close or Florida dominating. And with Miller ailing and Richardson not exactly rolling, it’s hard to go with the heart and pick Florida, so I’ll throw out a Tennessee 34, Florida 21 score and hope I’m wrong.”
Here are Alligator Army’s questions for us, in case anybody likes reading these, too:
1) Tennessee appears to be on the verge of being “back” — or, if not truly in the national championship tier of programs where Alabama and Georgia dwell, then solidly in that next tier in the SEC that seems capable of playing spoiler on the right days. What suggests this run at week-in, week-out relevance is the real push, and what has you worried that this might not quite be the moment?
“Yeah, so, we’ve been though this before. I mean, in 2016, Tennessee beat Florida and Georgia before throwing the year remarkably down the drain by losing to Texas A&M, Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt before season’s end. Not to say that Josh Heupel reminds me of Butch Jones, at all, but I’m just squarely in the “I’ll believe it when I see it,” camp as far as “is Tennessee back?”
Through three games, the offense hasn’t looked flush for an entire game yet. Our starts have been a little slower, and that’s a little bit of a concern, just because we don’t really know why it’s happening.
And depth — like basically everywhere — just isn’t where it needs to be for a team to contend for real-life legitimacy in the SEC. RB, OL, DL, LB, DBs... there are just tons of questions marks once you get beyond the starters. It’s a year or two early for me, but most Vol fans call me a “negaVol,” to I guess maybe there’s something to that, too.”
2) Florida has obviously played spoiler a few times in Tennessee’s stories of late, and the 16 wins in the last 17 meetings has definitely made it harder for Gators fans to view the Vols as a threat. Would getting a big win over the Gators be different and more meaningful as a marker of progress than beating, say, a good Arkansas or Kentucky team?
“Absolutely. This game has become something of a mental block for Vol fans. Tennessee could go up 21-0 in the first quarter, and a good portion of UT fans would be sitting there wondering “when is this gonna go bad, and how bad is it about to get?”
A dub over Florida would definitely take this hype train off the tracks. It wouldn’t really mean the same that a victory against Georgia or Alabama, but I know the fans would hold it in that kind of regard.”
3) Hendon Hooker is the straw that stirs the drink, but he’s at the controls of an offense that has long been cranked up to whir under Josh Heupel. Is Hooker good enough that he’s transcending that offense, or is its potency more about him operating well within it?
“Hooker didn’t win the job last spring practice. It took an injury to Joe Milton for him to take the job, and then he quite literally ran away with it. And there’s no question he’s been magnificent as the focal point of the offense. But it’s more about how Hooker and Heupel have meshed, and the way Hooker can operate this offense than it is how talented Hooker is.
That’s no knock on Hooker — it’s impossible to knock a player for throwing 37 TDs and three picks in his going-on two seasons at Tennessee. But it’s just been a perfect match of HC/ OC/ QB/ supporting cast. Kudos to Heupel and staff for getting some much production out of guys like Cedric Tillman, Velus Jones and JaVonta Payton last season.”
4) The Tennessee defense has been better than expected, especially after leaking points for much of the stretch run in 2021. What’s changed to make things better there, and is this early success likely to be sustainable?
“Though it’s still lacking in a big way, the defensive coaching staff KNEW they were gonna need to play more guys this year than last. Matthew Butler, a DL last season, finished seventh in snaps played among all NCAA DL.
And Tennessee defense got gashed in the second half of games last year. But this season, Tennessee’s getting to rotate more on the defensive line and at linebacker.
The secondary is still gonna have trouble, just because the staff mainly trusts the upperclassmen to make fewer mistakes, but then we get into trouble when those guys just aren’t talented enough to make some plays we’d like to see them make.
So, things are better, yes. But it’s too early to determine how much better, and if it’s gonna last.”
5) Finally: How do you see things going? Is this the moment for Tennessee to break through and get a big win over Florida?
“I don’t ever pick Tennessee to beat Florida. Ever. That won’t change until I see it happen.
I figure Florida is gonna play ball control as its offense and defense, just by extending some drives and keeping the Vols offense off the field. I’m figuring it’s gonna be a grind-it-out game that favors what Florida more than the Vols. The 10.5-point spread just freaks me out — like, have any of the odds makers watch this series over the last two decades??? — and I have the Gators winning the game outright. But, if Tennessee comes out really clicking, maybe they can go “boot on neck,” and run away with. I’m just, uh, skeptical.”