Florida has beaten Tennessee seven straight times and is looking for No. 8. If you follow college football, you know this.
This year, however, Tennessee finally appears to have something that it didn't use to have.
Call it swagger, but I'm going to call it a real football team.
This, combined with the fact that Florida and Tennessee have beaten semi-respectable opponents already this year, sets up a nice mano-a-mano showdown between the once bitter rivals.
So don't expect an obvious Florida fourth-quarter win, the big Florida halftime lead that turns into a 10-point win, the ugly game that Florida automatically pulls out in the end or the complete and utter beatdown the Gators administered to the Vols in 2007.
Instead, expect a chess match between two of Nick Saban's best students: Derek Dooley and Tennessee's offense and Will Muschamp and Florida's defense.
Now it's time to go through that chess match.
The Volunteer offense is much better than anything the Gators have seen so far. That said, the Gator defense is better than anything Tennessee has seen so far. So who gets the advantage?
Neither team, really.
But let's focus on Florida, since Tennessee's high-powered offense and the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson have gotten all the attention so far.
The Gator defense has been much like former South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia—it can be ferocious and lights out, or it can be comically atrocious. One drive, you would think you're watching the Baltimore Ravens. The next drive, it's like you're watching a middle school team.
That worked against Bowling Green and Texas A&M, but it sure won't work with Tyler Bray at the controls for the Volunteers.
The Gators allowed Bowling Green to string together two 70+-yard TD drives in Week 1. The other six drives? Three and outs, every single one of them. The first half against Texas A&M, quarterback Johnny Manziel ran around, through and passed over the Gator defense for 17 first-half points—and the entire Aggie team barely eclipsed 50 total yards in the second half.
If the Gators take a drive off against Tennessee, they're in deep trouble. Bray has proven that he can throw the deep ball as often to whomever he wants. There's no certainty that the Gators can stop Tennessee on every drive if they play their best, so they absolutely can't afford to just give away a free touchdown at any point in the game.
But let's get on to the good parts.
Contrary to popular belief, the Tennessee offense does have a weakness: Its running game. It's simply nonexistent. Sure, 375 rush yards in two games look impressive on paper, but not so much when you see that 72 came on a reverse call to Patterson, a wide receiver, and that they all came against FCS opponent Georgia State and N.C. State, a lower-level ACC team.
So, right there, you have the Gators' key to the game: Force the Vols to run the ball more.
If only it were so easy to do.
Tennessee's offensive line, while not great, is a step up from what it used to be. As a unit, it is much better at protecting Bray than it was a year ago. So the Gators now have to be careful with how many players they commit to rushing the passer, as opposed to anybody randomly deciding to shoot the closest gap whenever he chose. No, it doesn't work that way anymore.
Fortunately, the Gators have two of the game's best defensive game-planners: Dan Quinn and Will Muschamp.
In order to effectively shut down Tennessee's passing game, the Gators must first shut down the Tennessee rushing game, in order to put the Vols in uncomfortable down and distance positions. To force the Vols into 2nd-and-13 and then 3rd-and-15 would be perfect for Florida's defense, but we just can't count on them doing this more than one or twice a game.
The ideal situation is to never let the Vols get more than three yards a play on the ground. 1st-and-10 becomes 2nd-and-7, which becomes 3rd-and-4. If the game comes down to how many 3rd-and-4 situations the Volunteers convert, I will take those odds any day knowing how nasty the Florida defense is.
Yes, Tennessee will convert about a third of those, but it just takes one failed conversion to lose possession.
Basically, what I'm saying is that Tennessee can convert two third downs in a row, be stopped on their third third-down play and Florida will be fine, as long as the first two third-down conversions don't go for 50 yards.
This down-and-distance goal goes hand in hand with another goal the defense must be able to check off—the Volunteers cannot make huge plays. So far, Tennessee has shown an impressive big strike ability, but it has not shown the slightest ability to beat a defense with a long punishing drive.
Against N.C. State, the Volunteers scored on the following plays: A 41-yard pass, a 72-yard pass, a 67-yard run and an eight-yard run. Sure, that speaks volumes of the Vols' big-play ability, but against a Gator defense that is smart enough and talented enough to be on the alert for a big play and do something about it, you would like to see more of a variety.
The Vols did maintain long TD drives in their next game against FCS opponent Georgia State. I'm not even going to bring that up.
Aside from forcing Tennessee to try to run more, the other thing the Gators will accomplish by taking away the deep strike is that they will force Tennessee's offensive line to prove what they're made of. It has looked pretty good in its first two games, but I'm still suspicious of that unit. I'm wondering if they can stand up to the pressure of having to block four guys who can really move for a good part of three-and-a-half hours.
In order to really test the offensive line, Muschamp and Quinn will have to get creative, as I'm sure they will. In particular, I want to see a lot of stunts by the Gators from the front seven in order to confuse the Vols' O-line.
For an offensive line that hasn't seen a front seven like this since last year, this could get very tricky for it. It just takes one missed gap assignment by one of the five linemen (or blocking backs or ends) for Bray to get sacked or be pressured to throw an interception.
Raijon Neal figures to get most of the carries for Tennessee, but he may be more important as a blocker. I'm not so sure that the five offensive linemen can stop a four-man Gator rush, let alone an all-out blitz.
Neal is the key in the passing game. Not Justin Hunter, Patterson or even Bray. The chances are, an offensive lineman is going to miss on a block completely. If Neal can pick him up and give Bray that extra second and a half to make a play, it could be the difference between a touchdown pass for UT and a strip-sack-and-fumble-recovery touchdown for Florida. Or it could be less extreme, such as the difference between a third-down conversion and a sack and subsequent punt.
Conversely, if Florida can key on Neal and completely take him out of the game (not by injuring him, of course, but rather by making him ineffective), Tennessee has no chance of consistently giving Bray enough time to make a play.
Finally, we move to the secondary.
All Gator fans know how bad this defense is at forcing turnovers. Don't expect many in this game unless Bray makes a bad decision or gets sacked and fumbles. Last week, Texas A&M drove to the Florida doorstep on its first drive, but settled for a field goal. Why was that?
Because on first and second down, Manziel threw two good, not great passes that against most teams would have been good enough to be touchdowns. But both were broken up, the first by Matt Elam and then by Marcus Roberson. On third down, Manziel crossed the line of scrimmage and threw an illegal forward pass.
But those first two plays were solid throws. They weren't perfect, but they were good.
So far, Bray has proven himself to be a good quarterback. I have not yet seen anything that says that he is great. Aaron Murray is great. Tyler Wilson is great. Bray may become great as the season progresses, but he's not there yet. You cannot defend the perfect pass, and Bray has not thrown one yet.
As long as Bray doesn't grow up before our eyes and become the next Peyton Manning on Saturday, the Gators just need to work on getting a hand in and breaking up the pass. Unless the ball is literally thrown right into a Gator's hands, the ball needs to be spiked into the ground.
It's much safer—and easier—to ensure that nobody makes the catch than to turn the throw into a jump ball. Sometimes, the cornerback will win, sometimes the receiver will win, and sometimes nobody will win and the ball will fall harmlessly to the ground.
To go up and make a catch over a receiver that's taller than you (as is the case with most of UF's corners and most of Tennessee's receivers) is much more difficult than to just get a hand on it and knock it down in any direction.
So to review everything, here are Florida's keys to beat Tennessee.
1. Force the Volunteers into 3rd-and-4 or longer, and let's emphasize the "and longer" part.
Constantly giving Tennessee 3rd-and-4 may or may not work out so well, but it's still better than giving up a huge play on first or second down. Make the Vols offense run more plays, because even though this will tire Florida, it also gives the Volunteers the chance to make more mistakes.
Bray is accustomed to running a few plays a drive. Let's see how well he runs a drive when he has to do it for 15 or more plays.
2. No deep plays. This goes along with the previous key, and it's pretty self explanatory.
3. Constantly run stunts to confuse and tire the Vols' offensive line. This unit has a history of being weak, so it's time to test its quick-thinking abilities by running guys everywhere and switching up some assignments on the fly.
4. Raijon Neal needs to be silenced. It's not that he's been a breakout player yet, but rather that Florida can't afford to have him break out, giving it a new problem to solve.
5. Break up throws, don't go for picks. The turnovers will come if the Gators are patient enough. They just can't jump a route and miss completely, because that means a huge play for the Tennessee offense.
If the Gators can check off all five keys, they will win, guaranteed, barring a five-turnover day from the offense.
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