This may be the biggest game in this series in a long time. Sure 2001 had a lot on the line but it was rescheduled and we may never see that happen again. In this spot on the schedule you would have to go back to 1996 to find a bigger game and that one was in Knoxville. There is a lot at stake this week, for starters a top five ranking and the SEC East lead. But for Florida this is why Urban Meyer is here patrolling the sidelines. UF has lost too many home games in recent years and the last two at home versus the Volunteers. Every time UF has attempted to "retake The Swamp" they have let the fans down.
Urban Meyer referenced the 90's in his first press conference so he is well aware of the importance of this game. The pressure is on Florida to defend its turf and quiet any questions about Meyer's system and if will it work in the SEC. Chris Leak has pressure on him as well. The Heisman-contending quarterback is 15-8 as a starter with some big wins at LSU and FSU. But it is time for Leak to get a huge home win so his name can be mentioned along side Gator greats Mathews, Wuerffel and Grossman. At this point, the biggest home win for Chris Leak is Arkansas last year. Leak is poised to have a big game, he just needs the opportunity to throw the ball.
The Vols come in off a shaky offensive performance in which they scored only 17 points on UAB. Tennessee threw three interceptions and missed a field goal against the Blazers and that won't get it done in the Swamp. Gerald Riggs is a physical, punishing back that took the job over at the end of the season and is the feature back for the Volunteers. The depth is untested so he will be asked to carry the load on the road. The Vols like to run the power, the isolation and the toss in the running game. The offensive line is physical and likes to come off the ball and push people around. The passing game is a question mark with the two quarterback system being used once again against the Gators. Rick Clausen is solid but unspectacular and his biggest attribute is not turning the ball over. The team really plays hard for him and looks to him for leadership. Erik Ainge is very talented but apparently has a little Chris Rix in him as a person and a player. The receivers will a tough match up for UF and they are 6-3, 6-3, and 6-3.The Vols will run, run, run and then play action and try to get you over the top.
Defensively, the Volunteers front is big and experienced. The match up of Justin Harrell and Jesse Mahelona at tackle against Tavares Washington and Drew Miller/Jim Tartt could decide the tempo of the game. The Vols like to game a lot with their defensive lineman and will twist and stunt most of the time. Mike Degory will help to one side, but one guy will end up one-on-one with a Volunteer tackle. The UT linebacking corps is stout and will have a healthy Kevin Simon this season. He was injured early in the Florida game last year. Senior weak side linebacker Jason Mitchell again didn't practice and isn't expected to play this weekend. He did some running on the side, but hasn't taken a live practice snap since he sprained his knee in the opener.
The secondary cannot match up with the Gator receivers but they do have Jason Allen, who is very good, at corner. The unit gave up 286 yards to UAB and quarterback Darrell Hackney so I do think UF can have some success in the passing game.
The Florida offense has gotten much of the attention but it's the Gator defense that deserves the spotlight. UF's players not only have played well this season but going back to last year after Ron Zook was fired this has been a different unit. Kyle Jackson, Earl Everett and Dee Webb had stepped up the level of play the last six games in a Gator uniform. Only one opponent has gained over 300 yards against the Gators in the last six games and that was FSU in Tallahassee with 348 yards. UF is 5-1 in that stretch and the only loss (Miami) was a poor offensive showing in the Peach Bowl. The Gators have the best pass defense in the SEC and have done it with a combination of great man to man coverage and blitzing pressure from the front seven. The key this week will be tackling and assignments. Florida's linebackers must wrap up Riggs and get him to the ground and the lineman must stay discipline and stay in their lanes. When the Gators get tired it is important to make sure they keep up a substitution pattern to keep the front line fresh. Joe Cohen and Derrick Harvey look to be ready to contribute heavy snaps this week and that depth could be the difference.
The Gator offense features a spread attack that looks a lot like the old "veer" offense used in the mid 60's. The split back has been a popular offense in high schools and at the small college level (see Carson Newman a powerhouse in Division Two) but was phased out of Division One football in the last twenty years. Teams were afraid to get the quarterback hurt and got away from using it. With more and more speed on defense and more athleticism at the quarterback position we are seeing the re-birth of the "veer" led by Gator coach Urban Meyer. The veer leaves guys unblocked and forces the quarterback to read the defense. Chris Leak will need to be on top of his game if UF will run the ball effectively. Florida can "veer" a couple of different ways including the Meyer wrinkle by adding the shovel pass to Leak's reads. I still think the Gators strength will be down the field with deep passing to Chad Jackson and Bubba Caldwell. My plan for the Gators would be to throw and set up the run. Meyer is a balanced guy and he has a strong commitment to the running game. In game one, UF got away from the run and got control of the game with the passing attack. In game two there was a stronger commitment to the run and with DeShawn Wynn back in the lineup, UF got the balance it was looking for. This front however is awfully tough and I just think the quick passing game with shovels and some running will help UF get control early.
How will it play out? First of all there is not a player in UF's locker room that does not believe they are going to win the game. Many feel they have already beaten Tennessee and that this is the game to set up a special season. Many people talk about how this is the reason Meyer was brought to Florida. I think in some respects this is true but this is his first big game at UF and he is going to be around for a long time. I don't think this win validates or this loss casts doubt about what Meyer is going to do. Let's look at the big picture with Meyer. No problems off the field during the summer, a team grade point average that is the highest in a long time, top recruits committing earlier than ever and the ex-players are in full support of him even though many of them were coached by Steve Spurrier who is back in college coaching. Meyer is here to win football games and that is what he will do. I see Florida as a 10-win team at the end of the season but this could be a tough one. I think special teams, field position, turnovers will decide the outcome.
I think the Tennessee-Florida game always has something that defines it good or bad. From the kickoff return in 1990 to the official snafu last year something always happens in Florida versus Tennessee. This game has featured some great defenses but always has been a game that could get to the 20's and even higher. Because I like to go against the trend, I think this may be a defensive struggle. Both teams look very good on defense right now and UF is still finding it's way with a new offense while Tennessee has a quarterback controversy. I picked UF to win by 22 in the opener (won by 18) I picked them 45-10 last week and it was 41-3. Because I have been pretty close the first two weeks, I am due to be way off this week.
Prediction: Tennessee 16-10.
Key Players for UF in this Game: Chris Leak must throw at least 33 passes. Bubba Caldwell must touch the ball 5-7 times ... Chad Jackson must get at least two or three deep shots at UT secondary ... Drew Miller/Jim Tartt and Tavares Washington need to play their tails off … Defensively Marcus Thomas needs to have a game like he did in Tallahassee, Brandon Siler must be in double digits for tackles and Dee Webb needs to get an interception or two that changes the momentum and field position.
Gator great Danny Wuerffel will be honored at halftime this week by the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. We had Danny on our Sun Sports Show last week and he is committed to getting the kids back together as soon as possible from his Desire Street Ministries. He is being awarded the Tradition of Excellence and I cannot think of a better person to represent the University of Florida. If you are at the game don't leave your seat at halftime so you can give Danny the response he deserves. If you want to help his ministry, go to www.desirestreet.org.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The loser of this game has not gone to the SEC title game since 1997 when the Vols backed there way in after UF lost to LSU and Georgia.
OTHER INTERESTING STATS: Five of the last seven games have been decided by four points or less … Tennessee has won the last two in Gainesville … in 13 of the last 15 years the team that ran the ball better won … Tennessee leads the series 3-2 this decade … In the last four years the score is 101-100 in favor of Tennessee … Phil Fulmer is 5-8 vs. Florida … Urban Meyer has never coached against an SEC team … Urban Meyer has never lost a conference opener as a head coach … The Gator defense has not allowed a first half touchdown this season … UF held LaTech to -5 yds rushing in the second half … There has been only one overtime game in the series, 1998, which was won by the Vols … The last time Tennessee was shut out was by Florida in 1994, 31-0 … Last year the Gators had eight penalties in the loss while the Vols had two … Phil Fulmer is 18-3 in games decided by 3points or less … Urban Meyer is 2-0 vs. ranked opponents and this is the highest rated team he has coached against … Teams are averaging just 3.3 yds per play against the Gator defense.