Gators, Volunteers renew SEC East rivalry with new head coaches at the helm
One of the SEC’s most storied rivalries will be renewed on Saturday night as the Tennessee Volunteers (2-1) host the Florida Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) inside Neyland Stadium. It also marks a new era in the Florida-Tennessee rivalry with both programs now under the direction of new head coaches. Jeremy Pruitt will make his SEC head coaching debut for the Volunteers, while first-year Florida head coach Dan Mullen will lead the Gators into their first road test of 2018.
The Vols and Gators both enter Saturday’s prime-time SEC East tilt with a record of 2-1. Florida made easy work of both Charleston Southern and Colorado State, but the Gators could not overcome a potent Kentucky rushing attack in Week 2, falling to the Wildcats by a score of 27-16 in Gainesville. The loss dropped Florida to 0-1 in conference play. It also snapped the Gators’ 31-game win streak against the Wildcats.
The Volunteers’ lone defeat came in the form of a 40-14 drubbing at the hands of West Virginia in their season-opening matchup in Charlotte. Tennessee has since bounced back against weaker opposition, outscoring FCS foe East Tennessee State and UTEP by a combined 80 points over the last two weeks.
Both teams find themselves in desperate need of a victory on Saturday. The Vols have not beaten an SEC opponent since November of 2016, losing each of their last nine conference games. Meanwhile, the Gators make their way to Knoxville having lost six consecutive SEC matchups dating back to last season. Bragging rights are on the line as well.
Florida holds a 27-20 edge against Tennessee in the all-time series. The Gators beat the Vols 26-20 last season in Gainesville compliments of a 63-yard strike from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland on the final play of the game. The Vols defeated the Gators by a score of 38-28 the last time the two teams faced off in Knoxville.
Florida at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Feleipe Franks vs. the Tennessee pass defense
The Tennessee pass defense has been extremely solid in each of its last two contests. However, the Vols were anything but solid in their season opener against West Virginia. In fact, they were absolutely torched by WVU quarterback Will Grier, surrendering 429 yards and five touchdowns through the air. To be fair, the Mountaineers do have one of the best passing attacks in the nation, if not the best. It’s also worth noting that Feleipe Franks is no Will Grier. And he will not put up Will Grier numbers against the Vols. But there are some favorable aspects to Saturday’s matchup that bode well for the sophomore quarterback.
For starters, Tennessee has not shown much in the way of a pass rush through its first three games. Even against lackluster ETSU and UTEP offensive lines, it proved to be a real struggle for the Vols’ defense to generate pressure. And while the Gators’ offensive line has issues of its own, Franks should have enough time in the pocket to locate open receivers against the Vols.
Franks may benefit from the Vols’ lack of experience in the secondary as well. True freshman defensive backs Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor and Trevon Flowers have all shown flashes, and the future looks bright for this group. But the Gators have enough talent and experience in their receiving corps to exploit the young Tennessee secondary. Of course, it will be up to Franks to make the throws, and he has proven to be his own worst enemy at times.
2. Tennessee run game vs. the Florida run defense
If there is one thing we learned from Florida’s 27-16 loss to Kentucky, it’s that the Gators are vulnerable against the run. Florida gave up 303 rushing yards against the Wildcats. The Gator run defense didn’t exactly shine in games against Charleston Southern and Colorado State, either. Florida should benefit from the healthy return of linebacker David Reese this week. But this still appears to be a matchup that Tennessee can capitalize on.
The Vols’ offensive line has been inconsistent in opening running lanes. And there have been far too many negative run plays in the first three weeks. Nevertheless, a solid stable of Tennessee running backs has been able to make the most of its opportunities. A four-man rotation consisting of home-run threat Ty Chandler to go along with Tim Jordan, Madre London and Jeremy Banks is averaging 221.3 rushing yards per game (No. 36 in the FBS). The Tennessee rushing attack also has a little momentum following a 345-yard, two-touchdown performance against UTEP last week.
3. Opportunistic defense?
Despite Florida’s shortcomings against the run so far this season, the Gators have been able to make opposing teams pay for their mistakes. That sentiment rang particularly true against Colorado State last week. Through three games, an opportunistic Florida defense has racked up eight sacks, six fumble recoveries, two interceptions and 22 tackles for a loss.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is coming off a game against UTEP that was anything but mistake-free. Those mistakes cost the Volunteers on the scoreboard as well. But the Vols still managed to prevail with ease against the inferior C-USA opponent. That will not be the case if the same thing happens against Florida.
The Vols appear to be in good hands with Jarrett Guarantano under center. The sophomore quarterback has been incredibly efficient in Tennessee’s first three games and has yet to throw an interception. Tennessee’s offensive line, on the other hand, has been suspect at best in pass protection. That makes for a serious concern against a potent Florida pass rush on Saturday. It will be very difficult for Guarantano to avoid costly mistakes against the Gator defense if his offensive line is not up for the challenge. Turnovers and penalties could be a huge determining factor in what appears to be an otherwise close matchup.
This is a difficult matchup to gauge based on the measuring sticks provided in the first three weeks of the season. Statistically, the Vols look like the better team in most regards. Tennessee also has the advantage at quarterback. And the Volunteers will definitely reap the benefits from a raucous Neyland Stadium crowd on Saturday night. But this game will likely come down to which team performs better in the trenches. To this point, the Tennessee offensive and defensive lines have failed to pass the eye test. That should provide the Gators with the edge they need to pull off a hard-fought win on the road.
Prediction: Florida 24, Tennessee 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.