Tennessee Volunteers: Mission Impossible at The Swamp?

Darrell OwenbyContributor ISeptember 17, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 12: Jonathan Crompton #8 of the Tennessee Volunteers looks to hand off the ball against the UCLA Bruins on September 12, 2009 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. UCLA beat Tennessee 19-15. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)


The Tennessee Volunteers travel to The Swamp to take on arch enemy, the Florida Gators.  Vegas has tabbed the Vols as 29 point underdogs, Tennessee's worst point spread deficit ever.  Can this Tennessee team do the unthinkable and upset the Nation's No. 1 team or is another loss to the Gators a foregone conclusion?

No one is giving the Tennessee Vols a chance to beat Florida.  Not even the UT fans.  Coming out of Week One and a 63-7 victory over Western Kentucky,  Orange and White fans were riding a myopic high.  Jonathan Crompton had risen above the hump, had taken the Vols to a convincing win and had not self destructed.  Never mind that WKU is one of the worst teams in the FBS.  That did not matter.  Callers to Knoxville area sports talk shows began discussing ten win seasons and … gulp … beating Florida?  That was a scant two weeks ago, what happened?

In Week Two, the Vols hosted underdog UCLA in Neyland Stadium.  It is amazing how fast a fan’s perspective can change.  Jonathan Crompton had a horrible game.  Many fans are second guessing Lane Kiffin’s decision to leave Crompton in the game. 

While Volunteer fans were riding their emotional roller coaster.  The Florida Gators faced two over matched money games in Charleston Southern and Troy.  Even with a slight struggle against Troy, the Gators emerged with the win 56-6.  On paper, the Gators appear to be worthy of the 29 point favorite tag.  That is paper.  The last time we checked, football is played on a field with grass, sweat and blood.

The over all series is tied at 19 games a piece.  After such a long and storied rivalry, it is only fitting for this series to be deadlocked.  Looking inside of the numbers, Tennessee led ten games to none and then 13 out of 15.  Since that point, Florida has won 17 to UT’s six.  I thought this was a rivalry? 

This annual contest is one of the most heated battles each year in the SEC East.  The winner of this contest typically moves on to the SEC Championship Game in December.  Former Head Coach Phillip Fulmer left the UT squad in disarray and without very much talent.  New Head Coach Lane Kiffin definitely has his work cut out for him.  This is only the second time this series has featured the Vols as an unranked team with the other time occurring last season

Can the Vols over come the underdog tag and make this an interesting contest?  Before this week, the largest point spread over this series’ previous five years was seven points.  Twenty nine points is an enormous spread.  Granted, UT’s offense showed very few signs of life last week versus UCLA at home in Neyland Stadium; however, never count a program with such a storied history out.  There are five things to pay attention to that will determine if UT is able to bust the spread:

  1. Offensive Movement.  The Vols must be able to move the ball.  Plain and simple.  If Florida’s defense dominates this game, UF will cover the spread.
  2. Offensive Productivity.  The Vols must be able to run the ball.  The Vols do not have to average ten yards per carry, but rather three-and-a-half yards per carry.  While the long runs and big gains are sexy, UT must keep the ball out of the Tim Tebow led offense of the Gators.
  3. Turnovers.  Tennessee repeats General Neyland’s Game Maxims before each and every game.  The Vols can not afford any turnovers or they will be buried in a hurry.
  4. Special Teams.  Brandon James has made a living returning punts for touchdowns against the Vols.  James is a very potent weapon.  Many fans are expecting Tennessee to kick the ball out of bounds, perhaps even on kick-offs.  In Lane Kiffin’s and Chad Cunningham’s own words “we are scheming the punt team”.  Is the scheme to kick the ball away from James or is the scheme to kick the ball to the sideline?  James is primarily dangerous from the middle of the field.  I would suspect that UT will kick the ball to James against the sideline because truthfully, they WANT to hit him and hit him hard.
  5. Defense.  How do you prepare for Florida?  To stop the spread option attack, the defense MUST take one element of the game away.  Do you take away Tebow and allow the running game to destroy you?  Do you take away the running game and watch Tebow hurt you with the receivers?  Look for UT’s defense to try and stop the run while keeping Florida’s receivers in front of the defensive backs.  It sounds easy enough, but do not forget that this is the nation’s No. 3 defensive team versus the No. 1 offense.  Something will have to give.

Tennessee will not simply lay down and allow Florida to treat them as if they are Charleston-Southern.  Look for the Vols to come out swinging and swinging hard.  Tennessee must show the Gators that they are not intimidated nor afraid.  In two games, the Vols have shown no signs of quitting (which could not be said for last year’s team).  The Gators must be ready for a physical, hard hitting game because this game could possibly close for at least three quarters.  Ultimately, the Vols will most likely not have the steam to carry the physical confrontation through four quarters in a hot, humid environment such as The Swamp.

Darrell Owenby is a seasoned SEC sports analyst, freelance writer and editor of the daily blog SECRivals.com. Darrell can be heard around the nation on sports talk radio shows discussing the SEC.