Florida looks to continue its domination over Tennessee on Saturday, as the Gators and Volunteers meet in Gainesville for a critical September showdown in the SEC. The annual matchup between Tennessee and Florida has slipped in national and SEC importance in recent years, as both teams entered this game ranked just once in the last seven years. By comparison, every matchup from 1990-07 between these two teams featured both programs ranked in the Associated Press top 25.
This season’s matchup might not have the appeal of Georgia-Alabama or Alabama-LSU this year, but there’s no shortage of intrigue. Both programs are on the right track and could push the Bulldogs in the SEC East with a few breaks in 2015. Third-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones has recruited well, but the talent needs to start translating into wins in the SEC. The Volunteers are just 5-11 under Jones in conference matchups. Florida is a program in transition under new coach Jim McElwain, but the Gators are 3-0 and won their SEC opener against Kentucky last Saturday.
Florida owns a 25-19 series edge over Tennessee. The Gators also own a 12-5 record against the Volunteers in Gainesville.
Tennessee at Florida
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Tennessee -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida QB Will Grier
With Treon Harris suspended for Saturday’s game, Grier will take the full allotment of snaps against the Volunteers. The redshirt freshman has completed 39 of 57 passes for 442 yards and four scores this season but struggled against Kentucky (13 of 22 for 125 yards). Grier’s uneven performance against the Wildcats came on the road, but the young quarterback should play better in familiar surroundings this week. Grier could put some distance between himself and Harris on the depth chart with a big performance against Tennessee. And his case for an impact performance is certainly helped by the stat sheet on the Volunteers’ secondary. Through three games, Tennessee has allowed five touchdown passes and gave up 433 yards in the opener against Bowling Green. Protecting Grier will be a challenge for Florida’s offensive line, but the redshirt freshman quarterback has a huge opportunity ahead on Saturday.
Related: SEC Week 4 Predictions
2. Offensive Line Play
Both teams entered 2015 with question marks on the offensive line. So far, it’s fair to say those concerns and question marks still remain for both coaching staffs. Florida’s offensive line has surrendered five sacks, while the Volunteers have allowed six. Tennessee has fared better on the ground, as its rushers have averaged 4.7 yards per carry. The Gators have seven rushing scores so far, and its rushers are averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The edge in the defensive trenches is close, as both teams have arguably two of the top defensive lines in the SEC. Tennessee’s defensive front is led by sophomore end Derek Barnett, while Florida counters with Jonathan Bullard (three sacks in 2015) and Alex McCalister (4 TFL, 2 sacks). Which offensive line can protect its quarterback and generate a push on the ground will go a long ways in deciding the outcome of this matchup.
3. Tennessee’s Passing Attack
Joshua Dobbs provided a spark for Tennessee’s offense in the second half of 2014, and the junior entered 2015 as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. But through three weeks, the Volunteers rank near the bottom of the conference in passing offense. It’s way too early to panic on Rocky Top, as Tennessee won by 29 against Bowling Green and didn’t need huge numbers against Western Carolina. However, this offense sputtered against Oklahoma, and Dobbs was only 13 of 31 for 125 yards. Florida’s secondary could be the best Tennessee faces in 2015, so this will be a huge barometer test for Dobbs and his receivers. The Gators’ secondary won’t have cornerback Jalen Tabor due to suspension, but this unit is anchored by All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. Big plays could be tough to come by for Dobbs and his receivers on Saturday afternoon.
While this matchup may not have the national luster some of the previous meetings had in the 1990s and early 2000s, there’s plenty at stake for both teams. For Tennessee, this is an opportunity to prove the young talent is ready to go on the road and win in a tough environment. On the Florida sideline, this is a chance for McElwain to continue the Gators’ dominance (10 consecutive wins) over the Volunteers, as well as helping this program take a step forward after slipping under previous coach Will Muschamp. This one is tough to call, but give a slight edge to the Gators due to their defense.