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Florida vs. Tennessee Prediction: Volunteers Aim for Rare Win Over Rival Gators

Top-20 SEC East showdown set for Rocky Top.

An SEC East showdown on Rocky Top is set for Saturday afternoon when Florida travels to Knoxville to try and spoil Tennessee's 3-0 start. The Gators (2-1) have stumbled since their win over Utah in the opener with a loss to Kentucky and a close call against USF last week. Momentum is on the Volunteer sideline thanks to a strong start, headlined by an overtime win at Pitt and easy victories against Ball State and Akron. Georgia is the clear favorite to win the East Division, but the battle to finish No. 2 could clear if Tennessee wins on Saturday — especially with Florida already owning a loss to Kentucky.

The Billy Napier era at Florida started with a high-profile win over Utah in the Swamp. However, the last two weeks haven't gone as well for the new staff. The Gators outgained Kentucky in the SEC opener for both teams but were unable to overcome a lackluster day through the air and a couple of turnovers in a 26-16 loss. A week later, Napier's team needed a missed field goal to escape USF 31-28. Saturday marks Florida's final game in the month of September, but getting to second in the East would be difficult with a loss to Tennessee after the earlier defeat to Kentucky.

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Tennessee is 3-0 for the first time since 2016, but the schedule will get tougher as coach Josh Heupel's team hits SEC play. An overtime road win at Pitt tops the résumé so far, and the second-year coach's effort to get the team back to national prominence will certainly be aided by a win over Florida. After Saturday's game, the Volunteers have an off week before a trip to Baton Rouge, followed by a home date versus Alabama.

Florida has won 16 out of the last 17 against Tennessee. Also, just five out of the matchups in that span were decided by one score. The Volunteers haven't beaten the Gators in Knoxville since 2016.

No. 20 Florida at No. 11 Tennessee

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Tennessee -10.5
Tickets: As low as $318 on SITickets.com*

When Florida Has the Ball

The best defense against Tennessee's high-powered attack might be Florida's offense. The Gators have recorded 200 or more rushing yards in two out of the three contests and rank second in the SEC in yards per carry (6.4). And through three games, Florida is averaging just 58 plays a contest, which is the pace and style Napier's team needs to play at on Saturday. Although time of possession is largely a meaningless stat, the best shot at a Gators' victory is a low-possession game where the offense can chew up large chunks of time to keep Tennessee's offense off the field.

In addition to Florida's need to run the ball and keep the pace and tempo in its favor, the offense needs quarterback Anthony Richardson to be the Anthony Richardson the college football world saw in the season opener against Utah. The sophomore accounted for 274 yards in Florida's 29-26 victory but has struggled the last two weeks. Against Kentucky, Richardson recorded just four rushing yards, tossed two interceptions, and completed only 14 of 35 passes. A rebound performance was expected versus USF last week, but he connected on 10 of 18 throws for just 112 yards. For Florida to win on Saturday, Richardson has to eliminate the mistakes through the air (four picks over the last two games) and factor prominently into the ground game.

Although Richardson has to play better through the air, a lack of playmakers on the outside is another concern for Napier. Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall (seven rec., 120 yards) is the team's best option, with Xzavier Henderson (15 rec.), Justin Shorter (six) and tight end Keon Zipperer (six) joining as key contributors. The Gators have not hit a pass play beyond 33 yards this year.

Helping Richardson anchor the ground game is a trio of backs. Montrell Johnson paces the offense in carries (25) and yardage (240) so far in 2022, with Trevor Etienne (166) and Nay'Quan Wright (100) also in the mix. Tennessee has been tough against the run so far and ranks fourth in the SEC in yards allowed (83.3). Ball State and Akron didn't test the Volunteers much on the ground, while Pitt rushed for 141 yards over 39 attempts. Florida gashed this defense for 283 yards (7.1 yards per carry) last season and a similar effort is needed on Saturday.

Tennessee's defense allowed more than 30 points a game and struggled to stop the run (200.8 yards a game) in SEC contests last year. But the Volunteers are off to a good start in '22, limiting their first three opponents to 4.6 yards a snap and 14.3 points a game. Between the firepower on Tennessee's sideline and Florida's strength on offense (the backfield and Richardson's mobility), stopping the run and forcing the Gators to win this one on passing downs is the formula for success.

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When Tennessee Has the Ball

While Florida wants to play with a deliberate pace and control the time of possession, the opposite is true on the Tennessee sideline. Under Heupel, the Volunteers averaged 73 plays a game last season and are at 78 through three games in '21. Not only is the pace high, but Tennessee keeps the scoreboard operator in Neyland Stadium busy. This offense ranks third in the SEC in yards per play (7.1) and first in scoring (52).

Quarterback Hendon Hooker makes Tennessee's offense go and has been locked in through the first three games. The senior is completing nearly 70 percent of his throws (69.4) and has passed for 844 yards and six touchdowns. Also, Hooker has scored two times on the ground and leads all SEC signal-callers with five connections of 40-plus yards. In last year's game against Florida, Hooker (in just his second start with the Volunteers), completed 13 of 23 passes for 221 yards and two scores. Hooker will be the best quarterback Florida's defense has faced in '22, but the secondary has held up well against Kentucky's Will Levis (202 yards) and Utah's Cameron Rising (216). The Gators have allowed only two passing touchdowns in '22 and are limiting quarterbacks to just 6.4 yards per attempt.

Adding to coordinator Patrick Toney's concerns about slowing Tennessee's attack is the potential absence of linebacker Ventrell Miller (listed as questionable due to injury). How effective Florida's pass rush would be was a question mark coming into '22 and this group has registered just three sacks so far. In order to slow down Tennessee, the Gators will either have to bend a little in the secondary or pressure Hooker in hopes the senior will get rid of the ball quicker and limit the downfield shots.

Hooker's supporting cast at receiver is up in the air due to an ankle injury to No. 1 target Cedric Tillman (17 catches). The senior got hurt in last week's win over Akron and is questionable to play. Assuming Tillman doesn't go, Tennessee isn't lacking options on the outside. Jalin Hyatt (18) is in the midst of a breakout season, and USC transfer Bru McCoy has contributed eight catches for 109 yards. Additionally, Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White, Jimmy Holiday and Walker Merrill can all contribute.

Running back Jabari Small was also banged up in Tennessee's win last week but seems on track to play. Jaylen Wright (231 yards) leads the team in rushing, with Small also likely to contribute against a Florida defense ranking 13th in the SEC against the run (195.3 yards a game). Both Utah and USF went for more than 200 yards against the Gators. Although the Volunteers want to lean on the pass, there could be opportunities on the ground for Small and Wright.

Final Analysis

Florida has dominated this series, but on paper, Tennessee is the better team going into Saturday's game. Not only are the Volunteers a better team in 2022, but the atmosphere in Knoxville is going to be raucous with a program desperate for a big win over a rival. The best hope for a Gators' upset rests with a strong rushing attack and a rebound performance by Richardson that controls the tempo and keeps the Volunteers on the sidelines. Heupel will counter with the opposite approach: Fast tempo and aim to get ahead early on the scoreboard to get Florida out of its comfort zone. Outside of the rivalry history, there's not much of a reason to pick the Gators here. Florida battles and keeps within striking distance, but it's Tennessee's time for a breakout win under Heupel.

Prediction: Tennessee 34, Florida 24

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