Third down will be crucial

The SEC's best third-down offense faces the SEC's best third-down defense this afternoon in Gainesville, Fla. If the latter can win a few battles, Tennessee has a shot at hanging with top-ranked Florida.

If not, the high-scoring Gators are likely to cover the 29-point spread with room to spare when they host the Vols at 3:30 today in The Swamp.

Florida converted 6 of 9 third-down plays vs. Charleston Southern in Game 1, then converted 10 of 14 vs. Troy in Game 2. To date, the Gators have converted 16 of 23 times this season, an imposing 70-percent success rate.

Third down has been the defining moment for Tennessee's defense, too. The Vols allowed Western Kentucky (1 of 11) and UCLA (3 of 14) to convert on just 4 of 25 opportunities. That's a mere 16-percent success rate.

Strangely enough, Tennessee ranked 10th among the 12 SEC teams in third-down defense a year ago, allowing opponents to convert 37.1 percent of the time. The Vols seem to have plugged their leaky third-down defense this season, however.

"We stressed the importance of it ever since spring ball," senior linebacker Rico McCoy said. "Coach O (Ed Orgeron), Coach (Lance) Thompson and Coach (Monte) Kiffin emphasized it, even in practice."

Tennessee's defensive coaches were so emphatic regarding third-down defense during spring practice that McCoy grew a bit perplexed.

"You wondered why they're getting on you if you have a bust on third down in spring ball," he recalled. "It's third down but we're not in a game."

Upon hearing that complaint, UT coaches settled the issue once and for all. McCoy will never forget their reply:

"We treat EVERY third-down situation in practice just like it was in a game. Know your assignment. If the play comes your way, make it. Get off the field on third down."

The emphasis on third-down stops is paying dividends. Otherwise, Vol opponents would be converting a lot more than 16-percent of the time. Clearly, Tennessee's coaches have made their point.

"They've been stressing that ever since they got here," McCoy said, "and it's showing up now."

If it shows up again this afternoon at The Swamp, Tennessee just might be able to hang with the top-ranked Gators.

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