Tennessee and Florida both have aspirations of reaching Atlanta this December to play in the SEC Championship Game, so Saturday’s matchup in Gainesville is an early opportunity for one team to get a head start on clinching a division title. While this rivalry still has plenty of meaning within the SEC, it has lost some of its national appeal. From 1985-07, both teams entered this game ranked in the top 25. But since 2008, only twice – 2012 and 2016 – were both teams inside of the top 25. Additionally, there were two matchups – 2014 and 2015 – featuring the Volunteers and Gators as unranked teams.
This season’s matchup is surrounded in mystery. Florida lost to Michigan 33-17 in the opener and had its second game against Northern Colorado canceled due to Hurricane Irma. Coach Jim McElwain’s team struggled mightily on offense against the Wolverines, with its only touchdowns coming on defense. On the other sideline, Tennessee rallied to beat Georgia Tech in overtime to start the year and defeated Indiana State in Week 2. The Volunteers were a little fortunate to beat the Yellow Jackets, as Butch Jones’ team surrendered 535 rushing yards, scored 14 of its points off turnovers and Georgia Tech could not connect (one missed and the other blocked) on two field goal attempts.
Florida leads the all-time series over Tennessee 26-20. The Volunteers are 5-13 in 18 matchups played in Gainesville. Additionally, Tennessee has not won in the Swamp since 2003 and is just 1-11 in its last 12 contests against the Gators.
Tennessee at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Florida -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Offense
It’s no secret Florida’s offense is a unit in need of a spark. Despite lackluster production on this side of the ball for two consecutive seasons, the Gators have managed to win the SEC East in back-to-back years. Last season, Florida averaged 23.9 points per game and 5.2 yards per play. With Georgia and South Carolina trending up, similar production on offense is likely to cost coach Jim McElwain’s team the East Division title. And through one game, this unit still has major question marks. Against Michigan, the Gators managed only 192 total yards (3.6 yards per play), nine first downs, 11 rushing yards and converted just 2 of 13 third downs. Additionally, no drive lasted more than 50 yards and only three drives extended more than 30 yards.
Tennessee’s defense isn’t nearly as formidable as the one Michigan brought to Arlington in Week 1, but can McElwain and coordinator Doug Nussmeier generate more production out of this group on Saturday? The question marks start under center, as Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks could both take snaps. Franks (5 of 9 for 75 yards) started against the Wolverines (and is expected to start on Saturday), but Zaire (9 of 17 for 106 yards) entered in the second half. Zaire brings more mobility to the table, with Franks owning the edge in experience within the scheme.
As if the question marks under center weren’t enough for McElwain, Florida’s offense has concerns up front after giving up six sacks to Michigan. Additionally, starting running back Jordan Scarlett and No. 1 receiver Antonio Callaway are suspended indefinitely. Mark Thompson, Lamical Perine and freshmen Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons will pick up the slack for Scarlett on the ground. On the outside, Josh Hammond, Tyrie Cleveland and Brandon Powell are the top targets at receiver. Tight ends C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby will also be involved in the passing game.
2. Tennessee’s Offense
Through two games, Tennessee’s offense has fared significantly better than its counterpart on Saturday. The Volunteers scored 42 points in overtime versus Georgia Tech and matched that number in Week 2 against FCS foe Indiana State.
Junior Quinten Dormady edged Jarrett Guarantano for the starting quarterback position in offseason practices and is off to a good start through two games. Dormady has completed 33 of 55 passes for 415 yards and four touchdowns. The junior has a completion percentage of 60 percent, which could be a tad higher if his receiving corps provided more help in the opener versus the Yellow Jackets. Speaking of the supporting cast on the outside, the loss of Jauan Jennings to a season-ending wrist injury has opened the door for more targets for Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson, Josh Palmer and tight end Ethan Wolf. This is a promising group of options for coach Butch Jones, but Dormady needs time to throw against an athletic and fast Florida defensive front. The good news for Dormady? Tennessee’s offensive line looks to be on the right track this year, as this unit has allowed only one sack through two games.
John Kelly was projected to have a breakout year in his first as the full-time starter at running back, and the junior ranks fifth in the SEC with 208 rushing yards so far in 2017. Kelly is averaging a solid 5.6 yards per carry but has only one run of 30 or more yards this year. The Volunteers have solid depth here with Carlin Fils-aime and promising freshman Ty Chandler ready to step in. Chandler returned a kickoff for a score against Indiana State last week, and in a tight game, a big return could make all of the difference. Chandler is one to watch on Saturday.
3. Which Defense Steps Up?
With this game surrounded in mystery, we will group both defenses in this section, rather than focus on specific matchups in our storylines section. Why? Don’t look for much in the way of offense on Saturday afternoon. The defenses are likely to control the overall pace of the game, so turnovers, sacks and third-down conversions will be worth monitoring.
Tennessee’s defense is looking to improve after giving up 36.9 points in SEC games last year. Coordinator Bob Shoop’s group was hit hard by injuries last season, but this unit no longer has Derek Barnett coming off the edge, and linebacker Darrin Kirkland is out due to a knee injury. Considering the Volunteers have played just two games, it’s hard to get a read on this unit. But it is notable Tennessee gave up 6.8 yards per play against Georgia Tech and has notched just one sack. Without Scarlett and Calloway for Florida, the Volunteers have a bit of an advantage not having to match up against the top skill players from the Gator offense. But can this unit stuff the Florida ground game and force Franks or Zaire to win it through the air? Zaire’s mobility could be an x-factor to watch against Tennessee’s defense.
Florida’s defense lost a handful of key players from last year’s group and is under the direction of a new coordinator in Randy Shannon. Despite the personnel losses, the standard doesn’t change much for the Gators. This unit returned two interceptions for scores against Michigan in Week 1 and recorded five sacks. Shannon’s defense may need a similar effort on Saturday for Florida to win. The pass rush is in good hands with Cece Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jordan Sherit and Jachai Polite, and the interior features juniors Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark. A young secondary is going to take its share of lumps in 2017, but freshmen Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis and CJ Henderson are promising. Can Florida keep Kelly in check and force Dormady into third-and-long situations? If so, look for the Gators to create their share of pressure on the quarterback, which could lead to a few more turnovers and big plays.
As mentioned above, this game is a complete mystery. Without a second game to get live snaps against an opponent before this matchup, it’s hard to know what to expect out of Florida’s offense. Tennessee has some advantages working in its favor. Kelly and Calloway are emerging weapons on offense, Dormady has already delivered in a key game (Georgia Tech), and the line is trending in the right direction. However, history is not on the Volunteers’ side. Florida has performed well against Tennessee at home and the defense (even without last year’s players) is still good enough to win this game. Don’t look for much in the way of offense. The guess here is Florida’s defense makes a play late that puts Franks/Zaire into position for the winning drive.