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Tennessee Volunteers vs. Florida Gators Preview and Prediction

Joshua Dobbs

Joshua Dobbs

Florida will be looking for its 12th win in a row over Tennessee this Saturday, as the Gators and Volunteers meet in Knoxville for a critical SEC East showdown. Question marks surround the East Division’s top contenders after the first three weeks of the season, but Saturday’s matchup should provide some clarity and insight into how these two teams factor in the conference’s overall pecking order.

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While Florida has won the last 11 games in this series, Tennessee has been on the doorstep of winning the last two matchups. The Volunteers lost 10-9 in 2014 and couldn’t stop the Gators on 4th and 14 with just over one minute remaining, as former quarterback Will Grier connected with Antonio Callaway on a 63-yard catch and run for a score last fall.

Tennessee has made progress under coach Butch Jones, but the Volunteers have not looked like the team most expected to see in 2016. After a nine-win campaign last year, Tennessee was projected as the East Division favorite and a contender for the College Football Playoff. The Volunteers needed overtime to knock off a good Appalachian State team in Week 1 and struggled in last Saturday’s win over Ohio. Needless to say, Tennessee has to play better if it wants to beat Florida on Saturday and win the East this year.

On the Florida sideline, Jim McElwain seems to be pushing all of the right buttons in his second year at the helm. The Gators won the East Division last season and are off to a 3-0 start. The level of competition hasn’t been as tough as Tennessee’s, but Florida easily defeated Kentucky 45-7 in Week 2 and has allowed only 14 points through three contests. Even though the Gators have been impressive, this week’s matchup is a better barometer test of where this team stands. Of course, gauging where Florida is got a little tougher after the injury to quarterback Luke Del Rio in last week’s win over North Texas.

In addition to an 11-game winning streak over the Volunteers, Florida owns a 26-19 series edge. The Gators have not lost in Knoxville since 2004.

Florida at Tennessee

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: Tennessee -6.5

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Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterback Play

For different reasons, the play of both quarterbacks in this game is going to be under the microscope. Tennessee senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs was supposed to take a step forward in his development this year. However, the jury is still out on whether or not Dobbs has improved. On the positive side of things, Dobbs is 45 of 75 for 486 yards and six touchdowns and has rushed for 161 yards and three scores. Additionally, the senior is completing 60 percent of his throws. But a deeper look at those numbers highlights a few concerns. Dobbs is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt and has just two completions of 30 yards or more. It’s no secret Dobbs is not going to be a prototypical pocket passer. However, improvement in this department was expected. Adding to the challenge of finding a spark for Tennessee’s passing game is a Florida secondary that ranks among the nation’s best. Despite the concerns about the passing attack, Dobbs is still a threat to move the ball on the ground (along with running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and his mobility needs to be utilized against a strong Florida front seven. Can the Volunteers (and Dobbs) find some success through the air this Saturday?

On the other sideline, Florida thought it found its answer at quarterback in Luke Del Rio. The Oregon State transfer was solid in the first three weeks, completing 62 of 101 throws for 762 yards and six touchdowns. Del Rio wasn’t much of a threat to stretch defenses downfield, as he had only had two completions of 30 yards or more. However, the outlook on Florida’s quarterback situation changed dramatically late in the game against North Texas. Del Rio suffered a knee injury and is expected to miss Saturday’s game. With Del Rio sidelined, Purdue transfer Austin Appleby is slated to start. In three years with the Boilermakers, Appleby threw for 2,709 yards and 19 scores and also rushed for 290 yards. The Gators won’t need a huge effort out of Appleby, as coach Jim McElwain’s team can lean on a strong defense to carry this team on Saturday. However, Appleby can’t make the big mistake or put his team in an early deficit.

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2. Line of Scrimmage

Similar to Tennessee’s quarterback play, the offensive line was a unit expected to show progress in 2016. The Volunteers returned four starters and the overall depth and talent level has improved under coach Butch Jones. However, Tennessee’s offensive line has struggled mightily this year. The Volunteers are averaging just 4.3 yards per carry and have surrendered seven sacks through three games. This unit has been tested by Appalachian State, Ohio and Virginia Tech, but Florida’s defensive line is on a different level. The Gators possess one of the nation’s best defensive fronts and lead the SEC with 16 sacks generated through three contests. Florida also ranks first in the SEC by limiting opponents to just 42.3 rushing yards per game. Can the Volunteers generate a push in the ground game and provide Dobbs with enough time to throw?

Similar to Tennessee, Florida’s offensive line entered 2016 looking to improve after an uneven 2015 campaign. So far, the early returns are good for coach Jim McElwain. The Gators have allowed only one sack and average 4.97 yards per carry – up from 3.5 last season. While this group seems to be improved, Tennessee’s defensive line represents the toughest challenge it has faced in 2016. End Derek Barnett is one of the SEC’s best defenders and has registered three tackles for a loss through three games. Opponents have been able to generate a push against the Volunteers’ front seven this year, as the defense is giving up 152.7 yards per game on the ground. With Appleby making his first start, the Gators need to take some pressure off the quarterback by establishing a ground game. Four running backs have accumulated at least 17 carries so far, including Jordan Scarlett (5.3 ypc) and promising freshman Lamical Perine (5.5 ypc). Will Florida’s line establish the point of attack and clear the way for the ground game to keep the offense out of third-and-long situations? Expect Volunteers to stack the box and force Appleby to win this one through the air.

3. Turnovers

With a tight game expected in Knoxville, turnovers could play a huge role in determining the winner of this critical SEC East showdown. Both teams have been in the positive side of the turnover margin so far, as Florida has a plus-three margin and Tennessee checks in at plus-two. However, the Volunteers have been incredibly fortunate in this area. Tennessee has recovered five of seven fumbles by its opponents this year, which is a lucky 71 percent recovery rate. Additionally, the Volunteers have lost only one fumble so far. The fortunate bounces won’t last all season, so there will be some regression here for Tennessee. In every matchup against the Gators since 2008, the Volunteers have either recorded a negative or even turnover mark. That has to change on Saturday if Tennessee wants to end its losing streak. And on the Florida sideline, the Gators will be looking for a couple of takeaways to protect new quarterback Austin Appleby.

Final Analysis

This is a tough game to get a read on. Tennessee’s play through the first three weeks has left a lot to be desired, there’s major concerns on the offensive line and with the passing attack. However, Florida is starting a new quarterback (Austin Appleby) that struggled during his stint as a starter at Purdue. Appleby doesn’t have to be a difference maker on Saturday. However, he just doesn’t need to lose the game or make critical mistakes. Appleby will have some additional support as receiver Antonio Callaway is expected to play after sitting out last week due to injury. Tennessee’s injury concerns and the loss of cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Darrin Kirkland add even more mystery to this matchup. If Del Rio was healthy and under center, we would pick Florida. The guess here is Tennessee ends the 11-game losing streak to the Gators with a last-second field goal.

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Prediction: Tennessee 23, Florida 20