Last spring I thought Florida would beat Tennessee. All summer I thought Florida would beat Tennessee. In fact, I thought Florida would beat Tennessee right up until earlier this week. Now I'm picking Tennessee.
You already know all of the logical reasons for doing so:
- Tennessee has the home-field advantage.
- Quarterback Erik Ainge is playing the best football of his career.
- Tennessee's offense, rejuvenated by David Cutcliffe, is averaging 33.0 points per game, up from 18.6 last fall.
- Florida's offense is similar to the Cal attack UT completely shut down in Week 1 until John Chavis called off the dogs in the fourth quarter.
- Tennessee outplayed the Gators last year in Gainesville only to lose on special-teams blunders.
- The Vols need a big SEC win after going just 3-5 against league foes last fall.
- Phillip Fulmer has something to prove following last year's 5-6 disaster.
All of these are legitimate reasons to pick Tennessee, but my reason is a lot more basic than that: Emotion. I don't think emotion alone can win a football game. I do think emotion can be the winning edge in a game between two evenly-matched teams.
In two decades covering Vol football I've never seen the coaches and players as emotional as they are this week. Season-ending injuries to Justin Harrell and Inquoris Johnson hit the team hard. Several Vols are dedicating the season to their fallen mates. Johnson's remarkable courage in the face of serious nerve damage has inspired his coaches and teammates alike.
As if the Vols needed any more motivation, Florida safety Tony Joiner put his foot in his mouth this week by saying the Gators are looking to "go in somebody else's house and take their cheese, make a sandwich in the kitchen."
In case that didn't infuriate UT's players enough, Joiner added that Florida is likely to shut out Tennessee.
The Vols are an emotional powder keg, and they just might explode Saturday night.
Gators Ready to Exploit
By: Jeffery Stewart
Beating Florida has never been an easy task for the Vols under the best of circumstances, and this year's meeting comes under something less than ideal conditions.
Sure it's being played at Neyland Stadium, but that hasn't been an advantage for Tennessee in this series. Since Phillip Fulmer took over as full-time head coach in 1993, the Vols have only won twice in Knoxville — 1998 and 2004. They lost at home in 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2002. Meanwhile they lost at Gainesville in 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2005, while winning road games in 2001 and 2003 for a 4-9 record under Fulmer as head coach.
Since 2000 the series has been split at 3-3, but all three of Tennessee's defeats came against different head coaches, including Steve Spurrier in 2000, Ron Zook in 2002 and Urban Meyer in 2003. So much for the theory that UT's problems with Florida were because of Steve Superior.
Now in his second season on the job with a couple of outstanding recruiting classes under his belt, Meyer appears to have a title contender with a veteran QB, outstanding talent at the skill positions and the best front seven in the SEC.
That latter feature is the key to this game because if the Vols can't establish the run, they won't be able to pass with consistency. The Gators will crowd the line of scrimmage and invite UT to beat press coverage, figuring that the pass rush will take Erik Ainge out of his comfort zone while disrupting the timing of the passing game.
As well as Ainge has played to this point (and he has been splendid), he hasn't had even a hint of pressure. That won't be the case against Florida which will have someone in his face, attempting to hit him on every pass. It will be a test unlike he has had to this point.
To be effective he needs help from the running game, great protection against the Gators relentless rush and for his receivers to get off the line cleanly and into their routes quickly.
If Arian Foster isn't available the rushing load will fall to freshman Montario Hardesty, who may lack the size and durability to carry the ball 25 times as a feature back. Also Hardesty is not the type of cutback runner needed to take advantage of the Gators' aggressive pursuit and speed on defense.
However, the problems don't end there. The Vols defensive front will have trouble stuffing the run as it did in 2001 with players the caliber of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth at tackles and that's where defense begins. In fact, UT's ability to play on a level field with the Gators in recent years is directly linked to its size, strength and depth at defensive tackle.
That type of talent is not on hand now, and with Justin Harrell limited by a torn bicep the predictament is compounded. A healthy Harrell demands double-team attention, creating opportunities for other linemen and linebackers to exploit gaps in the offensive front.
It's not a coincidence that UT has struggled to stop teams in the second half this season. When Harrell has to go out of the game, the Vols defense isn't the same. By the way, despite the impressive performance against California in the first three quarters, UT's defense has surrendered 45 points in the last five quarters of action for an average of nine points per period.
Not all of that is due to Air Force's excellent execution of the triple option. True Florida's offense is better suited to UT's strengths on defense, but the Gators also have more talent and are far more physical than Air Force or California.
Emotion should be on Tennessee's side, but unless the Vols get on top early it won't be a factor. The Gators haven't had to spend any emotional energy to this point and are in much better health.
As a long-time observer of this series there are two things that I know for sure. Tennessee fans are always optimistic about knocking off Florida. And that optimism is rarely justified.