Even though this week’s game between the Vols and Gators is a mismatch on paper, you still have to go out on to the field and prove it to be so. That’s why you play the game.
To be honest, I don’t know if the Vols can win even if they accomplish the following three tasks, but I do know that they’ll be in good shape to pull the upset if they do.
1. Run Eric Gray into the ground
The talented sophomore is 25th in the country in terms of rush attempts per game (18.86), which has thus far led to an impressive 651 yards on the ground, but the Vols have been using him a ton over the last four games and that needs to continue on Saturday against the Gators.
Gray has run for 481 yards and two touchdowns on 96 carries over Tennessee’s last four games. The total yards lead the SEC and are the seventh-most in the country among running backs from games No. 4 - No. 7, while the 96 carries are the most in the SEC and are the second-most in the country over that same span.
Tennessee may not be scoring points, but it’s clear that the offense is a lot more efficient when Gray is heavily involved in the game plan. He averaged just 12 carries per game over the first three games of the season compared to 24 over the last four and as a result, the Vols have seen increases in their third down conversion rate (26% to 36%) and time of possession (26:15ish per game to 31:17ish per game), while sustaining the same amount of first downs per game (20).
Florida’s only loss on the season saw them give up the most rushing yards to a single player in Isaiah Spiller, who ran for 174 yards on 27 carries. Spiller ran for more yards that day than four other teams ran as a whole against the Gators. He was the driving force behind A&M’s win and if the Vols want a shot at beating Florida, they’ll have to get Gray just as involved.
If not more.
2. Start Harrison Bailey
I really don’t know if this course of action gives the Vols a better shot to win than starting Jarrett Guarantano, but at this point, you have to find out what you have in Bailey.
The rumor is Guarantano was the quarterback in quarantine with the other 15 players over the last week or so. If that’s the case, that means Guarantano hasn’t had any practice time since he’s been in quarantine. Therefore, Bailey and co. have been working with the first teamers to an extent over the past few practices.
If it’s true that Guarantano is the guy in quarantine, then you have to start Bailey. Sure, Guarantano has the most experience and knows the offense better than the other guys (we think), but at the same time, you know what you’re getting. If the coaches really believe that they have an exponentially better shot at winning the game with JG at the helm opposed to the others, then I really wouldn’t know how to explain that. The advantage in starting JG is slight, at best.
Bailey is considered to be the future and if he’s had the proper amount of time to prep for a game then I don’t see why you wouldn’t throw him out there to see what he can do.
Jeremy Pruitt said earlier in the week that Bailey will play, but that may not be good enough. He needs as much playing time as possible, which means he needs to be on the field from the first snap to the last.
3. Convert third downs
As I mentioned in the Gray section, Tennessee has been a lot better on third downs over the last few games. A 10% increase is nothing to balk at, but you obviously want to get better.
The Vols are going to need to continue their streak of third down improvement this weekend against Florida if they want a shot to win. I hate to base everything off of one game, but if you look at the Gators’ loss to the Aggies, you’ll notice that A&M went 12-of-15 on the money down.
Now I’m not saying the Vols need to go out and convert on 80% of third downs, but they definitely need to be better than average, which is around 40.7%.
Florida’s third down defense isn’t bad. As a whole, it’s the 60th-best defense on third down, holding opponents to a 39.6% conversion rate. But when you dive into their schedule, it becomes a bit more apparent that converting third downs is one of the main keys to offensive success against Florida. In Florida’s three highest-scoring games allowed on defense (teams average 37 points per game), opposing offenses average a 62% conversion rate on third down. In the Gators’ other five games (19 points per game allowed) they average a 27% conversion rate.
This is even more crucial because of the Gators’ potent offense. Tennessee’s defense will get wiped from the map if the offense can’t stay on the field.