Florida’s defense is a buzz saw made with needles that slowly deflates offenses as if they were giant bouncy houses.
The Gators are giving up only 258 yards per game so far this season, and those yards come painstakingly and at a great cost. First-year head coach Jim McElwain’s team stuffs the run, only allowing 55.33 yards on the ground per game, and dares opposing teams to throw to its talented secondary spearheaded by All-SEC and potential first round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
In McElwain’s first road test of his SEC head coaching career, his defense held talented Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles to just 8-of-24 for 126 yards and two interceptions. Its defensive line suffocated Towles for six sacks and a night of discomfort in building a 3-0 record heading into Saturday’s game against Tennessee.
“I don't know if there are one or two adjectives that could describe [their defense.] The word that comes to my mind is impressive,” Butch Jones said. Monday. L”ast week, they held a team to eight completions. They are number one or two in every statistical category, and deservingly so. They are deep. I believe they play 10 on the defensive line. They have the ability to play press-man coverage. They are as good of a defense that we have seen since we have been here.”
The Gators have given up just 166 rushing yards all season for an average of 1.95 yards per attempt and rely on a feisty secondary, led by Hargreaves and featuring safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, to sit on the pass. Florida excels in zone coverage but also has the luxury of playing press-man coverage, a technique Tennessee will be forced to work on this week as it prepares for its SEC rival.
"Obviously, you try to gain some formational advantages and different things that way,” Jones said. “They have to make the decision if they are going to commit to that or are they going to commit to the run. We will do some different things, maybe with some different personnel groupings and formations to try and give our receivers some relief a little bit. At the end of the day, when you play a man-coverage football team, it comes down to me against you and being able to adapt and adjust to the ball in the air.”
The Gators will most likely be without linebacker Jeremi Powell with what McElwain described as a “high foot” injury, and could possibly miss fellow starting linebacker Alex Anzalone due to a shoulder injury.
That’s a big blow to a solid linebacking corps, but the Vols are still preparing as if Florida’s defense is at full strength.
"In terms of this week, [it's a] great challenge going on the road into a hostile environment,” Jones said. “Everything is about preparation, and before you want to talk about this is the most important game and everything, it's not the most important game. It is the most important game in terms of it's the next game, and that is the way it is.”
Jones has downplayed the way the Gators have dominated the series for the past decade, but on Saturday, it won’t much matter how many times Florida has bested Tennessee in this heated rivalry.
The Vols offensive production and chance at a victory rests on its ability to penetrate a stout defense ran by defensive coordinator Geoff Collins that hinges on making teams one-dimensional before bringing pressure on third down with its deep arsenal of defensive linemen charged by end Jonathan Bullard.
To combat the Gators’ aggression, Tennessee’s offense must find success running the ball early and play virtually mistake-free in The Swamp.
"Florida definitely always has a strong defense, strong up front, and they like to play a lot of man coverage in the back end, so we have to come out and win our one-on-one matchups," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. “We have to go down there with that type of mentality. To go down there, to execute our game plan like businessmen and win.”