We can get into the talent argument about the game in a minute, but there are some maybe bigger outliers that I believe can play a background part in the game on Saturday.
Number one has to be the mindset of a team that has lost 11 games in a row to the team they are playing. The Gators are in the heads of the Volunteers, and I am not just talking about the players and the people that will be on the field and sideline on Saturday. The fans are a part of this too.
I can remember the days as a fan when I dreaded hearing the “Rocky Top” anthem played over and over again when things went right for the Volunteers in this contest. In the last 11 years, the playing of that song has come few and far between and the fans at the first sign of something bad and unanticipated quiets them down.
It isn’t like Knoxville is the only place that happens. It happens everywhere, but when you are talking about the futility in a series like this one over the last decade plus, that feeling of “here we go again” kind of multiplies on itself to a point where the fans expect the worst.
On the field, an early sign of unexpected trouble can lead to a team tightening up. I can tell you, with this Florida defense and the way they are playing, if Josh Dobbs is tight in the game, he will get eaten alive. He’s played that way already this year against lesser defenses.
The second reason to feel confident happened in the fourth quarter of the contest last week. While the biggest player loss of the year happened moments before, when Florida head coach Jim McElwain blew a fuse on the field in front of his players about an injury caused to his players, they noticed.
It isn’t as if this football team didn’t believe in McElwain and didn’t think he cared. Hell, they can visit his office and he’ll make them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich any time they want as they sit and chat about life or what is ailing them. But, there is always a little bit of transition among the team when a new coach arrives.
Any kind of transition with being on the same page went out the window when McElwain, at midfield, yelled across the field at the opposition Saturday night. These guys will have his back and they are going to play harder than ever.
McElwain certainly believes his guys know he has an open door policy about everything and anything.
"Here's the one thing, guys: Our team knows me,” McElwain said earlier this week when pressed on what it means taking up for his team and an injured player. “I'm pretty transparent. They know how much I care. They know how much I want them to be successful, not just as a player but successful when this football thing is over. I'm there for them. I'm a passionate guy and probably a guy that, you know, is not a lot of fun to cross. Does that make sense? But anytime, I'm there for them and how they respond, I don't know. That's who I am."
The players also know that their health is of the utmost importance. McElwain has a policy that if a player can’t practice on Wednesday because of injury then they can’t play on Saturday. Guys don’t want to miss time, but the fatherly figure knows he has to protect them.
Against North Texas this past weekend, sophomore All-American receiver Antonio Callaway sat after bruising a quad muscle at Kentucky the previous week. The decision to sit Callaway was made after practice on Wednesday when Callaway couldn’t go.
McElwain said Monday the uncertainty lingers with Callaway, but he’s not going to press him to get on the field.
“I don't know whether he'll play or not,” the head man said. “The guy's got to be able to go. I got to go back, and I hate to keep repeating myself. I will never play a guy that’s not ready to play. That’s just not fair to that person. That’s how much I care about our players. I’m not going to put a guy out there on half a leg. Life is too short, and there are other people who will step up and play. It’s just not my gig. I’m not going to do that to somebody’s son.”
This week, the ‘other people’ include quarterback Austin Appleby. The senior graduate transfer from Purdue will get the start against Tennessee on the road because starter Luke Del Rio went down with a knee injury in the game against North Texas and will be out for an indefinite period of time.
It’s next man up for McElwain and he knows he has to get Appleby ready. He doesn’t have time to sweat about it and treats the situation like an opportunity for the next guy.
“I don’t think we’re ever bitten by an injury bug,” he said. “It’s the game. I look at it as the opportunity bug, all right. There’s an opportunity for someone now to come in and play. That’s what makes it fun. That’s why you have a team. I’m just not a guy getting caught up in that stuff. I’ve got enough stuff to worry about. Let’s go get the guys ready to play that are going to be there and walk off the bus and see what we do.”
Florida Offense vs Tennessee Defense
All of this leads to the matchup between the two SEC East teams on Saturday. The Gators have a bruised offensive roster with Del Rio and starting right guard Tyler Jordan also on the mend and out for the contest.
We’ve mentioned Callaway and missing the North Texas contest, but the general consensus is that he will be ready to go. Junior receiver C.J. Worton is starting to make a bigger impact after returning from injury a couple of games ago. He is expected to start being a difference maker.
Although Florida’s competition to start the year hasn’t been the toughest, the Gators opening three games are very comparable to the first three games a year ago. Florida is averaging 5.0 yards per rush compared to 4.2 in the opening three games last year.
The passing game probably took a hit with the loss of Del Rio. That means a couple of things here. Appleby is going to have to be careful with the ball. His MO at Purdue was to throw as many interceptions as touchdowns. While Del Rio has thrown several times into double coverage and been lucky with several plays, he is more careful than not and has thrown the football a lot.
Look for the Gators, who are fourth in the SEC in rushing right now to run the ball a little more against a Volunteer defense that ranks ninth in the conference at this point in time. Look for Appleby to take some chances with play action and then he is a guy that can tuck it and run it better than Del Rio and we should see a good bit of that.
While teams are running pretty well on Tennessee, they are second in the SEC only to Florida against the pass giving up just 182 yards per game through the air. They have hauled in one interception and given up three touchdowns. They will be missing starting corner Cameron Sutton and that is a huge loss, but Malik Coleman will return at the position after being suspended for the last game for breaking team rules.
The Vols have just three sacks, but a lot of times that can be dictated by the competition. Still one per game is low and it doesn’t appear that they will be able to take too much advantage of a Florida offensive line that is still considered the soft spot on offense for the Gators. Florida leads the league in sacks allowed and has given up just one in three games.
Thoughts… The Gators will run the ball more than they have. Appleby is plenty talented in terms of his arm, but he isn’t quite as versed in the offense as Del Rio having just arrived on campus in January. Still, he shouldn’t be scared by the arena like most new quarterbacks. He played in big time stadiums at Purdue and on the road. He’s older, like Del Rio, so there is a maturity factor there that we will see that didn’t see from a Will Grier or Treon Harris a year ago.
Expect the offensive line to continue to grow in terms of their play on the field. Richerd Desir-Jones and Fredrick Johnson were thrust into action at right guard last week with Jordan out and they should play better, albeit a much different environment than they played at home.
I see two tight end sets and two running back sets a lot in this game and the use of the running game to set up the passing game. It won’t be at the level we saw as we wound down the season last year and with Treon Harris at the helm, but the backs should get a lot of work.
Florida Defense vs Tennessee Offense
It is my opinion that the most talented unit on the field Saturday will be the Florida defense. Given, the Florida defense was very talented a year ago and the Vols lit them up pretty good, there is more going on in this defense than most could see leading into the season.
It starts up front. The Florida defensive line may not have anyone playing at the level of Jonathan Bullard at this time a year ago, but what they have is a serious group of guys that collectively are putting up some terrific numbers.
The Gator defense is tops in the county in many categories and honestly the numbers, regardless of competition are almost comical. Florida is giving up just 129yards per game of offense; the next closest team is Virginia Tech at 204.7 per game. Florida is second in the country in rush defense (42.3 yards per game) and second in pass defense (67.3 yards). Florida leads the country in sacks with 16. They are filling that void left by Bullard and fellow defensive lineman Alex McCalister.
If I had to pick the biggest difference on defense from a year ago it would be the play of the linebacker duo of Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis. It would be extremely hard to name a better pair of linebackers than these two in the entire country and these guys live in the backfield during games.
I think it is a little understated how much Vernon Hargreaves played hurt last year. With that in mind, the corner play of Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor are playing at a higher level. Both have interceptions and are joined by Duke Dawson at nickel to form a terrific trio of corners that do their job at the highest level.
The Gators are also getting good pay at safety and Marcus Maye and Marcell Harris both have interceptions at this stage of the game. Those two picks can be tied back in to the play up front with quarterbacks throwing under pressure.
The outlier thought here is that this is the game that defensive coordinator and the defense have circled on the calendar since it was played in week four last year. Yes, the Gators won the contest, but the defense was abused at times by the running of quarterback Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. The Gators haven’t been shy ion the offseason and this week about what they plan to do this time around, There is no denying that this game is very important to all of them and the play of the linebackers this year is going to be key, an area that struggled in the game last year.
The Vols offensively have been kind of middle of the road so far this season, certainly not what they were expecting. They are scoring at a 31 points per game clip so far, good for eighth in the conference and just two spots behind the Gators. Yardage wise, the Vols are 11th in the SEC and racking up 351 yards per game. It should be noted that the Virginia Tech defense they faced is tops in the country.
Tennessee is running at a 4.3 yards per carry clap and that number seems pretty low with a quarterback that runs as well as Dobbs does. That is certainly not a number they were reaching for coming into the season.
The Vols have fared worse through the air, raking up just 162 yards per game and good for 12th in the SEC. They have netted six touchdown passes and three interceptions in the three games.
Thoughts… Just by numbers, this looks to be a big mismatch. However, the two teams matched up last year and this side of the ball was a real struggle for the Gators. I do believe that the Gator defense is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a while and so the Vols will have to go back to the trickery they displayed last year along with breaking a few of the long runs they also displayed a year ago. I just don’t see it happening with this defense playing like they are.
The two teams are pretty evenly matched among all special teams honestly. It appears Florida is slightly better at most, but the numbers are negligible. This area seems to be a wash.
One Key Stat… The red zone is where the Vols seem to really dial things up. In 11 chances inside the 25yard line, they scored 11 times and nine of those via touchdown. Compare that to Florida who has gone 10 of 14 in the red zone and three of the four misses came after failing on fourth down conversions. This is an area the Gators have to be better at. If they can score given the chances and they stay away from turnovers, the Gators can win this one, and decisively.
I will post a score later, but I do believe the Gators have got this.