The Volunteer faithful have been waiting for a meaningful game for several years. They finally will have one this weekend.
Saturday can’t get here quick enough for Tennessee fans.
Tennessee is ranked for the first time since early in the 2008 season and, while the rivalry with Florida isn’t back to where it once was, there is excitement from both sides heading into the game.
The two teams enter as opposites. The Vols come in featuring a high-flying passing attack, while the Gators bring a strong running game and defense to Knoxville.
So what will separate the two Saturday? Here’s five keys for the Vols.
Everybody in the country is aware of the fact that Tennessee’s strength is throwing the football.
That includes Florida, which will be dropping into pass coverage and trying to contain the Tennessee receivers.
In this rivalry, the team that has won the rushing battle has won the game nine straight years and 21 out of 22. However, Tennessee is not likely to win that battle Saturday night—win or lose.
That won’t matter, though, if the Vols can create any sort of running game. Tennessee doesn’t need to gash the Florida defense on the ground. It just needs to keep the Gators honest.
If the Vols can be just slightly successful rushing, making Florida honor the run, the field opens up for Tyler Bray and company.
If they can’t, the Gators will be more than willing to drop seven or eight into coverage and make it tough on the passing game.
Tennessee enters the game with the better offense. Florida has the better defense.
When it comes to special teams, Florida has the clear advantage.
The Vols’ special teams have been major weaknesses for years. While the return games and coverage units have improved, the kicking game is still very weak. So weak that Derek Dooley has been named a walk-on kicker as the starter for Saturday.
Michael Palardy has struggled from the moment he arrived on campus, and now Derrick Brodus will get his chance on the main stage.
Tennessee doesn’t need to win the game with special teams, but it has to avoid losing the game because of them.
The Vols enter Saturday 2-0 and the defense has overall played better than most people figured it would.
However, the defense has been terribly slow out of the gates and been gashed at times in the first quarter.
These numbers are from Patrick Brown of the Chattanooga Times Free Press:
vs. N.C. State
• First 4 drives: 25 plays, 182 yards, 7 points
• Next 10 drives: 46 plays, 163 yards, 14 points
• First quarter: 162 yards on 26 plays (6.2 yards per play)
• Rest of game: 245 yards on 54 plays (4.5 ypp)
vs. Georgia State
• First drive: 14 plays, 65 yards, 3 points
• Next 11 drives: 58 plays, 146 yards, 3 points
• First quarter: 81 yards on 17 plays (4.7 ypp)
• Rest of game: 197 yards on 65 plays (3.0 ypp)
The Vols need to avoid the early struggles, jump out in front and keep Neyland Stadium rocking.
The buzz around Knoxville is reaching uncharted heights. The Tennessee fanbase is starving for a team to get excited about. Now that they have that team, fans are coming out in full force.
Around kickoff Saturday night, Neyland Stadium will be rocking at volume levels that haven’t been touched in Knoxville in quite some time.
Neyland Stadium can be a huge advantage for the Vols on Saturday. However, the intensity will only increase if Tennessee can get ahead early.
Tennessee has a chance for true home-field advantage Saturday night.
There will come a time in the game when things aren’t going Tennessee’s way.
The Tennessee teams of recent years have crumbled in big games when that time has come. This team doesn’t appear to be as mentally fragile as those, but it hasn't encountered that situation yet in a true big game.
When that time comes on Saturday, the Vols must power through it and stay on track. Otherwise, like so many games over the last few seasons, the game will spiral out of control.
How much has this team matured from last season? We will find out Saturday night.