For nearly a week, I have been reading articles and listening to various bits of analysis on the Florida-Tennessee game this Saturday (Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, ESPN, at 6:00 PM).
Picking up on the common theme did not require any special reporting or writing skills on my part. Almost everything I have heard or read says the Tennessee Volunteers can win—for the first time after seven straight losses—if they can run the football.
No one is venturing a guess as to how much they will need to run, though I think it is safe to say it will require a bit more than the minus nine-yard total the Vols' effort netted in 2011—or will it?
Contrary to popular belief, Tennessee can lose the rushing yardage battle and still win the war. That statement has not been true the past seven years—all Florida wins—in this series.
In 2002, however, Florida won the Game 30-13, with 94-rushing yards, while the Vols had 99-rush yards. Thus, it is possible to win this game without having the most rush yards.
It is important that I make a couple of distinctions here that coaches always make.
First, it is certainly a good thing to have more rushing yards than your opponent in any game. However, having the most rushing yardage doesn't always indicate the most effective at running the football.
Say you are watching your favorite team playing a game against team B.
Team B runs the football 40 times and gains only 40 yards. Then, on their No. 41 run, a jet sweep gets 84 yards. Now, they have run 41 times for 124 yards; no-touchdowns and a 3.0-yard-per-run average.
At the same time, your favorite team has run the ball 15 times for 90 yards, four touchdowns and a 6.0-yard-per-run average.
Team B had the most yards, but who had the better running game?
Tennessee must be able to run the football well enough to make Florida respect their ability to run. That's all. That may take 50 yards, or it may take 150 yards.
Still, based on what I have read from around Knoxville, these Volunteer running backs really hope to show up big in this game. Regardless of what they do, the ultimate success or failure will primarily rest on the efforts of the offensive line.
The Tennessee offensive line is bigger, stronger and, of course, more experienced than last season's. However, the little known fact is that its left side has been re-worked a bit since then as well.
Sophomore, Antonio Richardson, at 6'6" and 317 pounds is starting at left tackle. Richardson was a highly touted recruit and can be a devastating run blocker. He earned the starting position this season when he got the pass protections down.
Beside him, redshirt senior, Dallas Thomas, at 6'2" and 320 pounds, starts at left guard. This is Thomas' normal position. However, he was asked to play at tackle last season as Richardson learned the ropes.
Junior, James Stone, at 6'3" and 310 pounds is playing where he is most comfortable at center now. Tennessee has been running the middle behind these guys, and occasionally pulling right guard, junior Zack Fulton, at 6'5" and 324 pounds and tackle, junior Ja'Waun James, at 6'6'' and 323 pounds.
Last year, some of these players were out of their normal positions, due to the number of issues the Vols still had on the line. That is no longer a problem and the line is working well together now.
In addition, Tennessee believes they possess a strong advantage over Florida in the passing game.
While they intend to run the football some, expect a great deal more air attack—unless the Gators lean more heavily on a coverage scheme.
If that becomes the case, expect the Volunteers to run straight at the Gator's tough defensive front seven. They learned last season not to dance around or try running wide on the fast Florida defense.
Balance is primarily what this Tennessee team possesses on offense that was missing in 2011.
They proved in last year's game their ability to protect Bray. After losing his No. 1 target, he was only sacked three times and hurried three in the game.
This year, he has his whole crew of speedy, dependable receivers and a run game that can do enough.
Therefore, expect the Tennessee offense to be confident—not confident of a blowout but of the ability to go toe-to-toe with the Florida Gators.