Florida Gators vs. Tennessee Volunteers: Breaking Down Matchups for SEC Battle
For the first time since 2007, the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers will meet each other while they are both ranked in the AP poll. Florida won that game 59-20 in Gainesville.
The Gators are coming off of their biggest win under head coach Will Muschamp, and Derek Dooley is looking to beat the Gators for the first time since taking over at Tennessee.
The Vols have seriously underperformed since Dooley has been at the helm, and they are looking for a signature win to show the nation that they are back.
Older fans will remember the significance that this game used to hold. The coaching battles between Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer were the stuff of legend, and the winner of this game always took the driver's seat in the SEC East.
With both teams being ranked again, there is a renewed sense of urgency and importance leading up to kickoff.
Let's take a look at the matchups that will determine the winner and see who comes out on top of each.
When Florida Runs...
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Will Muschamp badly wants his Gators football team to be a physical, between-the-tackles team. We saw that much against Bowling Green when the Gators continually lined up and tried to run the ball with eight, nine and even 10 men in the box.
Make no mistake about it: The offense runs through Mike Gillislee.
The Gators have shown their identity, and they will continue to go to their senior running back. Florida is averaging 181 rushing yards a game, and that includes all the yards lost from sacks.
The Gators will use their running attack to keep the high-powered Vol offense off of the field, and if Gillislee is as healthy as the coaches say he is, they should be able to run the ball effectively against Tennessee.
Tennessee has the 43rd-ranked rush defense, but they faced North Carolina State, which is ranked 107th in the nation in rushing, and Georgia State.
When Tennessee Runs...
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Tennessee has rushed the ball 81 times in its first two games. That number is slightly inflated due to the fact that the Vols were sitting on leads in their first two games.
The Volunteers starting tailback is Rajion Neal. Neal has carried the ball 35 times this season for 118 yards. A 3.37 yards-per-carry average is alright but nothing to be too concerned about.
Tennessee is a pass-first team, and it will try to beat Florida through the air.
When Florida Passes the Ball...
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Jeff Driskel is growing up before the eyes of Gators fans. Driskel has been efficient as a thrower, completing 23-of-32 passes for 276 yards.
Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease has been somewhat handicapped as to how much of his playbook he can throw at his quarterback. Against Texas A&M most of the passing plays had progressions that covered only half of the field.
The fact that Driskel isn't getting all of the practice snaps is certainly not going to help his progression any.
The Gators will need to open the playbook even more against Tennessee.
The Vols are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 50.6 completion percentage and have five interceptions on the year. Driskel has yet to throw an interception this year, but his decision-making in the pocket has been a work in progress thus far.
Tennessee will look to get pressure on Driskel and force him to throw the ball to win the game.
When Tennessee Passes the Ball...
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Going into his third season at Tennessee, Tyler Bray is looking to finally become the dominant quarterback Vols fans think he can be.
Through two games Bray looks as good as advertised.
Bray is completing 73.8 percent of his passes while throwing for 643 yards and six touchdowns. Bray has yet to compete against the kind of defense the Gators will bring into Knoxville, but coming in with the best Tennessee team we have seen in a while should give Bray a ton of confidence.
The Gators will be without a couple of key defensive players. Jelani Jenkins and Cody Riggs are both expected to miss about four weeks with injuries.
Antonio Morrison filled in for Jenkins last week, and the Gators have a ton of talent in their secondary. While losing Jenkins and Riggs isn't ideal, the Gators defense is much deeper than a year ago and shouldn't miss a beat in their absence.
Tennessee will take more shots downfield than the other teams Florida has played this year. That means the Gators pass rush will have more time to make an impact and get pressure on Bray.
Lerentee McCray played a great second half against A&M, Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard are two freshman who have made impacts early. and you can't forget about Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley.
The Gators pass rush will force Bray to make a few mistakes on Saturday.
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The Gators have had the special-teams edge in this series for years.
Will Muschamp seems to be shaking things up on special teams, and Andre Debose may lose his starting punt- and kick-returner job (via Gator Country). Muschamp was visibly angry with Debose last week when Debose unnecessarily launched himself into an Aggie covering a punt. The act could have been deemed a penalty and pushed the Gators back 15 yards.
With Debose falling out of favor, look for Marcus Roberson to start working in on punt returns and Solomon Patton to get some looks returning kicks.
The Vols are making a kicking change coming into this week (via The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun). Michael Palardy has been the starting kicker at Tennessee since his freshman season, but Dooley likes what he sees in Derrick Brodus.
For Tennessee Cordarrelle Patterson has been electric on kick returns. The JUCO transfer is averaging 35.33 yards per return this season, but expect that to go down this week. The Gators have done an exceptional job covering punts and kicks and have a kicker in Caleb Sturgis who can kick it through the uprights on any given kickoff.
With kickoff and punt returns being somewhat of a wash with these two teams, you only need to ask yourself one question to determine who has the special-teams advantage in this game.
If the game comes down to a field goal, would you rather have a kicker who is a Lou Groza Award favorite, or a choice between a kicker struggling with accuracy issues and one who was on his couch hours before the second game?
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The coaching advantage has to go to Will Muschamp in this game.
Muschamp won his first meeting in this series last season and is coming off the best win of his short head-coaching career.
Derek Dooley is still looking for a signature win and will try to get that this season against Florida. If Dooley is unable to beat Florida for the third straight season, his seat will undoubtedly get hotter and Florida's win streak will extend to eight games.
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The Gators faced a raucous crowd last week in College Station and will not get a break this week at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee could set an attendance record this weekend, and the fans will be doing everything in their power to make it as hostile an environment as possible for Florida.
While the Gators have experience playing against a rowdy crowd, there is something different about playing in front of 102,455 fans wearing Creamsicle and singing "Rocky Top" ad nauseum.
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Earlier in the week, I made a prediction how I thought the game would play out.
I stand by that prediction and believe the Gators will win this Saturday in Knoxville, but the score will be lower than what was previously predicted.
Florida will look to keep Tyler Bray and the Vols offense on the sideline as much as possible. How do you do that? You run the ball early and often. Running this kind of grind-it-out offense leads to much lower point totals.
If you're a betting man, I would advise you to take the Gators getting three points and to take the under at 48.
A streak will end on Saturday night, but it will be the Gators' streak of winning the last five contests by double digits, not their consecutive-win streak against the Vols.
Florida's special teams are the difference in this one.
Florida Wins, 23-21