The sixth-ranked Florida Gators will make their way to Rocky Top to face the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday. Saturday's game will mark the 50th meeting between these SEC East rivals. The Gators lead the all-time series 29-20 and have won 14 of the last 15 contests, making this once-storied rivalry rather one-sided for the better part of two decades now. The Dan Mullen vs. Jeremy Pruitt era has produced two dominant Florida victories by an average margin of 28 points.
With last Saturday's 34-10 win at home against Kentucky, the Gators improved to 7-1 on the season and have now won their last five contests by an average margin of 23 points. The Gators ride the momentum of that five-game win streak into Knoxville, looking to also extend their success against the Vols to four victories in a row. If successful, the Gators will punch their ticket to Atlanta as SEC East champs, keeping their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
It's been tough sledding for Tennessee this season. Following a 2-0 start with wins against South Carolina and Missouri, the Vols have now lost five consecutive games by double digits for the first time in school history. Tennessee now sits at 2-5 on the season after suffering its latest defeat on the road against Auburn by a score of 30-17. And the hits keep coming, as COVID-19 and subsequent contact tracing could leave Tennessee shorthanded this week with at least 17 players currently in quarantine, many of which are rumored to be starters and/or key players. They are expected to get several of those players back by Saturday. However, there will be plenty of rust to knock off after missing two weeks of practice. The Vols also dismissed edge rusher Kivon Bennett this week following his arrest on Tuesday. Bennett was the team leader in tackles for a loss with 7.5 and tied for the team lead in sacks with 4.5. But the show must go on, as Tennessee makes its first appearance in Neyland Stadium in 42 days on Saturday to take on the red-hot Gators.
No. 6 Florida at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida -17.5
When Florida Has the Ball
Quarterback Kyle Trask is coming off his worst statistical performance of the season last week against Kentucky, and he still threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns. That really puts into perspective just how great this season has been for the Heisman Trophy hopeful. In addition to leading the nation in touchdown passes with 34, Trask also ranks in the top five nationally in passing yards (2,810) and passing efficiency (196.8). He ranks top 10 in the nation in completion rate (71.4 percent) and yards per pass attempt (10.3).
Trask also has his top weapon back in the fold in Kyle Pitts. The All-SEC tight end returned last week against Kentucky after missing the previous two games with a concussion. And he didn't disappoint, hauling in five receptions for 99 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Wildcats. In just six games, Pitts has 11 touchdown catches (second in the SEC), while averaging almost 18 yards per reception. Trask also continues to lean heavily on favorite targets Kadarius Toney (45 rec., 541 yds., 7 TDs) and Trevon Grimes (24, 358, 6). And pass protection continues to be stellar from an offensive line that has given up just eight sacks all season.
That all adds up to a dominant Florida passing attack that is averaging an SEC-best 369.6 yards and 4.5 touchdowns per game through the air. That also spells serious trouble for a Tennessee defense that is giving up 243.6 passing yards per game (No. 6 SEC/No. 79 FBS). The Vols have done well in keeping opposing passing games from scoring through the air, surrendering an SEC-low eight touchdown passes this season. However, this defense continues to struggle mightily against passes over the middle. It also struggles to get off the field on third downs, where opposing teams are converting at a 50 percent clip against them. Tennessee will surely have its hands full trying to contain Trask and Co. on Saturday.
While running the football isn't exactly Florida's bread and butter on offense, there is potential for success in that regard as well. Tennessee is giving up a fairly generous 161 rushing yards per game (No. 9 SEC/ No. 62 FBS). Leading rusher Dameon Pierce (80 att., 412 yds., 3 TDs) will do most of the heavy lifting for the Florida ground attack on Saturday.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee limps into Saturday's game with an offense that is averaging just 339 yards and 20 points per game. Self-inflicted wounds and mistakes have been commonplace for a Tennessee passing game that averages just 184 yards per game (No. 13 SEC/No. 106 FBS) and has collectively accounted for more interceptions (7) than it has touchdown passes (6). Struggles in the passing game also have led to one of the worst third-down conversion rates in the nation at 32 percent.
The big question is who will start at quarterback for the Vols on Saturday? Fifth-year senior Jarrett Guarantano started the first seven games, and if the aforementioned stats weren't telling enough, things haven't gone well for Guarantano. While not officially confirmed, there's speculation that Guarantano is one of several Tennessee players currently in quarantine. That could open the door for true freshman Harrison Bailey to get his first-ever start on Saturday. At a minimum, head coach Jeremy Pruitt has already confirmed that Bailey will play in some capacity against the Gators. While Bailey hasn't looked great on the stat sheet, the former five-star has shown flashes in limited action.
Regardless of who is behind center for the Vols on Saturday, they are going to need more help from an underachieving receiving corps. Senior Josh Palmer leads the Vols with 22 receptions for 331 yards and four touchdowns, while true freshman Jalin Hyatt has shown potential as a deep threat, averaging close to 18 yards per receptions. Beyond that, it has been slim pickings in terms of pass-catching options for the Vols.
The good news is that Florida's pass defense hasn't been anything to write home about, giving up 243 yards per game through the air (No. 5 SEC/No. 78 FBS). The bad news is that the Gators' pass rush is legit, generating an SEC-best 23 sacks. That makes for an intriguing matchup against a star-studded Tennessee offensive line that has been slightly underwhelming in pass protection, surrendering 17 sacks in seven games.
It hasn't been all doom and gloom for the Tennessee offense, thanks to a lone bright spot in Eric Gray. The sophomore running back currently ranks fifth in the SEC with 651 rushing yards and four scores. Gray also is the only running back in the conference with four 100-yard rushing performances this season. Three of those have come in his last four games, including a season-high 173 yards in his most recent outing against Auburn. Gray, along with fellow running back Ty Chandler (315 yds., 2 TDs), will be critical to Tennessee's chances for success on offense on Saturday against the Gators. They will be paired against a middle-of-the-road Florida run defense that allows 144 rushing yards per contest (No. 7 SEC/No. 46 FBS).
No one has found an answer for Kyle Trask and Florida's high-octane passing attack all season. And Tennessee's defense isn't likely to be the first to crack the code. The Vols will be lucky to find a spark on offense with Harrison Bailey at quarterback to complement a solid rushing attack with Eric Gray. But even with that best-case scenario, Tennessee still has little to no chance of keeping pace on the scoreboard against the Gators. Simply put, both of these teams are what they are at this point in the season — Florida being exceptional and Tennessee falling very much into the bad category. Gators keep things rolling with a big win in Knoxville to clinch the SEC East title.
Prediction: Florida 42, Tennessee 17
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.