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Tennessee-Florida: A look at the Gators

What to know about Florida.

McNeese v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

And now the real season begins. Tennessee will open SEC play on Saturday night as they always do, with a game against the Florida Gators. It’s been well-documented at this point — the Volunteers haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003. They’ve been blown out, they’ve been devastated by late game heroics from the Gators, but this time does feel a little different.

Tennessee has yet to hit full song offensively through two games, but considering the opponents that they’ve faced, you’d have to think Josh Heupel and company have kept some things under wraps, too. The lack of consistency in the passing attack is a concern going in, but Florida has similar issues, which were highlighted by Utah in week one.

Still though, it’s The Swamp. No matter how much you win the battle on paper, you’ve got to go make it happen on the field. It’s a mental hurdle at this point, and Josh Heupel has a chance to clear it for good on Saturday night. He wasn’t able to get it done back in 2021, but the programs have been moving in opposite directions ever since then.

It’s truly a pivotal moment for this 2023 Tennessee team, one that should tell us all we need to know about the ceiling of this group. As things stand now, Tennessee is a 6.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

A look at the Florida Gators

It’s year No. 2 for Billy Napier, and based off of that week one loss to Utah, there doesn’t appear to be much on-field progress. Sure, it was a tough environment, but the Utes controlled the entire game, even without their starting quarterback in the lineup.

Napier could use a shot of momentum, and he’s at least got an opportunity to find one with Tennessee coming to town.

“They’ve got great team speed,” Josh Heupel said of Florida. “Got athletes that can go make plays in space. You’ve got to bottle up the run game. That’s a huge part of what they do and that sets up their play-action pass. A year ago, they hurt us with some of that. We’ve got to be able to fit the run and then play assignment-sound and play the ball well when it’s in the air.”

Florida was able to bounce back with a 49-7 win over McNeese State last week, all while Tennessee struggled through a 30-13 win over Austin Peay.

The big question that has been lingering for the Gators since the end of last year has been surrounding the quarterback position. Anthony Richardson left a big hole in this offense, and he’s frankly a guy that’s impossible to replace. A dreadful spring game created even more questions about what was next. Ultimately, Napier settled on a name that college football fans know pretty well.

Quarterback Graham Mertz

Mertz comes over from Wisconsin, where he was once a prized prospect. The flashes were there, but it just never really came together with the Badgers. Double-digit interceptions in both of his full time seasons doomed his time at Wisconsin, leaving him with an opportunity for a fresh start. Florida obviously had a need, so the fit together was obvious.

Can Mertz play up to his potential that had so many excited back 2020? Or will the turnover-heavy play continue? His statline wasn’t all that bad in week one against Utah, but the offense really never got out of first gear. His next opportunity comes against a seemingly much-improved Tennessee defense — one that will flat get after the quarterback. It’s a tough task for Mertz, but one that he’s going to have to tackle for the Gators to have a chance.

Wide Receiver Ricky Pearsall

The Tennessee secondary is still a bit of an unknown at this point, despite the fact that the Volunteers have a ton of experience back at cornerback. Tennessee was so up and down in the secondary a year ago, and almost all of those faces are back for another year.

If there’s one guy on the other side that can change the game for Florida, it’s Pearsall. The former Arizona State Sun Devil has quickly become the go-to target for Mertz, totaling 92 and 126 yards in his first two games of 2023. He has catches of 40+ in both of those contests, providing the Gators with a much-needed big play threat.

The 6-1 senior receiver will demand plenty of attention from the Tennessee secondary.

Running Backs Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne

Whether or not Florida can run the football will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one. They didn’t get it done against Utah, but they also fell behind early so the game script wasn’t exactly in their favor. Still, the Gators ended up with 21 carries for just 13 yards on the day. Trevor Etienne handled seven carries for 25 yards, while Montrell Johnson Jr. had three carries for six yards. The duo obviously had an easier day against McNeese State last week.

Tennessee, though obviously untested, has given up an average of 87 yards on the ground through two games. The Volunteers rank second in the country in tackles for loss, as that front seven has clearly been the strongest part of the roster to this point. Going up against their first SEC front of the season, it’s going to be interesting to see if they can keep that production going.

Look for Napier to try and get both of his backs going early against that Tennessee front.

Linebacker Shemar James

The former five-star recruit has been busy to start the 2023 season. Manning the middle linebacker spot for the Gators, James totaled 13 tackles in the opener against Utah. The 6-1, 230 pounder out of Mobile will play a huge role for Florida on Saturday night, tasked with plugging up run lanes against a Tennessee offense that loves to spread you out. It’s a different look than he saw against Utah, providing an entirely different challenge.

The Tennessee run game has kept them afloat offensively to this point, with Jaylen Wright off to a hot start. The Volunteers should get starting center Cooper Mays back too, boosting an already strong attack. James should be a busy man come Saturday.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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