Normally Florida comes into this game as the favorite while Tennessee is the underdog with something to prove, but the roles are reversed this season. After the Vols vanquished the Gators in The Swamp last year, head coach Steve Spurrier opted for the NFL, and Florida fell hard at home to Miami (41-16) two weeks ago, it¹s the Gators that have something to prove this year.
Vols D vs. Gators : After piling up 643 yards (the fifth highest total in school history) in the season opener vs. UAB, Florida was held without a touchdown pass against Miami for the first time since Vanderbilt kept the Gators air attack out of the end zone in 1999. Running back Earnest Graham and receiver Taylor Jacobs combined for 428 yards vs. UAB in the season opener and along with quarterback Rex Grossman are Florida¹s principal offensive weapons.
Florida¹s offensive front is young and large. It includes two freshman starters and one sophomore with no seniors, but averages 6-6, 311 pounds from tackle to tackle. Tight end Aaron Walker, 6-6, 261, gives the Gators another big blocker up front that will test UT¹s defensive front four that averages 6-4, 271. However the Vols have the experience edge in the trenches with five seniors featured in the two-deep defensive line.
At 5-9, 215, Graham may prove difficult for Tennessee¹s linebackers to pick up coming out of such a mass of humanity. The Vols will have to maintain their run gaps and prevent the cut back to limit the Gators ground game. However a strong rush defense has been a Tennessee staple since John Chavis took over as defensive coordinator and figures to challenge Florida again this season.
Establishing a consistent ground attack has been critical to winning this series. In the last 11 meetings the team that rushed for the most yards won 10 times. Florida comes into the game averaging 186 yards on the ground, while Tennessee is holding opponents to 71 yards per game.
If Tennessee can force Florida to become one dimensional on offense, as it has the last three encounters, the Gators will be hard pressed to win this game, especially with a passing attack that appears limited by Florida standards. The lack of outstanding protection, a second big-play receiver and the absence of Spurrier¹s sideline strategy and play calling are handicaps the Gators haven¹t overcome to this point. Unlike prior years, the Vols may actually benefit from playing Florida early in the season.
With a secondary that appears much improved, the Gators also will face a stiff challenge moving the ball through the air against Tennessee and could be susceptible to turnovers. The Vols have a plus-2.0 turnover ratio while Florida is minus 0.33.
A key for Tennessee¹s defense will be its ability to apply pressure on Grossman without relying on the blitz. The Vols weren¹t able to achieve that objective against MTSU and could leave themselves vulnerable to big plays if they fail to do so against Florida.
Vols O vs. Gators D: Tennessee has controlled the line of scrimmage on offense in the last two meetings with Florida and figure to press that advantage again this year. In fact, Tennessee has averaged 222.5 yards per contest on the ground against Florida in 2000 and 2001. Combine that with the fact the Gators defense is giving up an average of 211 yards per game this season and it¹s easy to see this battle will be a key.
Tennessee is averaging only 162 yards rushing in the first two contests this season, but figure to be much stronger with wide receiver Kelley Washington back in action. Washington almost demands help from the safety which limits the numbers opponents can commit to the run. If Florida chooses to leave Washington in single coverage, it¹s defense will be at risk from the quick strike. Expect the Gators to attempt to disguise their intentions as much as possible in order to force Clausen to check out of plays or to audible to poor choices. At the very least this ploy could take UT out of its offensive rhythm.
Florida defensive coordinator John Thompson came over from Arkansas after Ron Zook was hired to replace Spurrier and brings with him a bag of tricks Tennessee has seen when he coached at Southern Miss, Memphis and Arkansas. The Vols have had good success against Thompson¹s chaotic deployment on defense by going with quick hitters and using zone blocking.
One of the keys for the Vols will be quarterback Casey Clausen getting the offense out of the huddle and up to the line in order to get a good pre-snap read. Tennessee has used four tailbacks in its first two games this season, but will probably go with the hot hand against Florida. With limited experience at tailback, it¹s important that either Cedric Houston or Jabari Davis get into some type of offensive flow.
Tennessee has limited its play selection so far this season, but will open things up against Florida especially with Washington back in the line up. The Vols have to test Florida deep to prevent the safeties from walking up in run support.
Also look for Tennessee to make more creative use of Derrick Tinsley as a slot back or wing. Forcing a linebacker to cover Tinsley will not only present a favorable match-up, it will also prevent the Gators linebackers from selling out to the run.
The presence of Washington should also open opportunities for tight end Jason Witten who has seen a lot of double coverage and jams at the line of scrimmage so far this season.
Also, don¹t be surprised to see the use of double tight end sets by the Vols in an effort to force Florida out of it¹s base alignment and to limit the stunts the Gators can select.
Intangibles: Florida is talking a lot about the advantages of coming into this game as the underdog looking to avenge last year¹s defeat. But Tennessee hasn¹t beaten Florida two years in a row since 1970-71 and the Vols have higher aspirations than the Gators do this season.
The home field crowd will provide plenty of emotional fuel for Tennessee while the Vols recent run of competitive play < last four games vs. Florida have been decided by four or fewer points < should provide an added confidence boost.
Moreover, the Vols should have plenty in the tank after cruising through two opponents followed by an open date, and the fact they haven¹t revealed much should also prove an advantage.
Conversely, what edge Florida may have gained from playing an opponent the caliber of No. 1 Miami is offset by the confidence it lost and the weaknesses that were exposed.
Summary: Florida is trying to find itself with a new coaching staff and a new system on offense and defense. The Gators will probably get better as the season evolves, but this is not a situation for finding themselves. Rex Grossman is the ultimate system quarterback who is playing in a new system without his offensive mentor and play-caller. Tennessee doesn¹t have the defensive front that Miami threw at him but the Vols have an extremely quick and deep defense that swarms the ball and destroys the timing of offenses.
Bottom line: Tennessee will never have a better chance to not only defeat the Gators, but to whip them soundly.
Prediction: Tennessee 37, Florida 20.