Tennessee-Florida: Five Keys to a Vol Victory

Will SheltonSenior Analyst ISeptember 16, 2008

It's only lunchtime Tuesday, but I'm heading to the Outer Banks for a wedding tomorrow morning and then heading into Knoxville from there on Friday. Since we're uncertain of Internet availability and certain of 18 hours in the car, here's what I've got.

The Vols and Gators have met 37 times, with Tennessee now holding the slimmest of margins at 19-18. Florida has won three straight, coinciding with the arrival of Urban Meyer on the scene in Gainesville.

Once the Vols broke Steve Spurrier's death grip on them in 1998, this series enjoyed an entertaining and highly competitive run of games: In the nine meetings from 1998 to 2006, six of the games came down to the final drive, and the Gators held a 5-4 advantage over that time period.

But last year, the floodgates were opened anew—Florida trashed the Vols 59-20, scoring the game's final 31 points in the last quarter and a half. It was the worst loss the Vols had suffered since 1981.

In 2008, a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator have Vol Nation in mass uncertainty, still frustrated by the season opening loss at UCLA. Meanwhile, Florida is ranked No. 4 but has a few questions of its own.

This game, as it always is, will be the pacesetter in the SEC East race.

Florida is favored by a touchdown in Knoxville, though many on both sides are predicting a much larger number. If the Vols are going to win on Saturday afternoon, they'll need to do the following five things.

1. The Auburn Offensive Blueprint

No team has given Florida more trouble recently than Auburn. The Tigers were the only team to beat the National Champion Gators in 2006, and they got the best of them again last year in Gainesville. How has Auburn done it?

Brandon Cox was the quarterback of both of those teams, and he's not a guy that beat you by himself or put up big numbers. Playing styles aside, Jonathan Crompton should take heart in the fact that a QB of Cox's reputation beat the Gators twice.

The key factors in those two games:

Run/Pass Ratio

What every Vol fan knows and hopes Dave Clawson also believes: You have to run the ball to beat Florida. In 2006, Auburn ran it 40 times and passed 27. In 2007, Auburn ran it 44 times and passed 26.

The Tigers didn't put up jaw-dropping rushing yardage: 133 yards in '06, and only 99 yards last season (both numbers were hampered by sack totals). But what they did do was...

Win Time of Possession

Even with moderate success at three or four yards per carry, the Tigers were able to keep Florida off the field...which is generally the best way to stop them.

Auburn had a sick 13:26 advantage in 2006, which means they had the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game. They had a 5:54 advantage last season, which is also substantial. Florida's offense can't score if they don't have the ball. Which also means...

Don't Throw Interceptions

Here are the numbers on Brandon Cox in those two games:

2006: 18 of 27, 182 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs

2007: 17 of 26, 227 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs

Again...the quarterback doesn't have to be the man. He simply has to be efficient. For Tennessee, all of this should be familiar...

Remember the History of this Rivalry

The team that wins the rushing yardage battle has won the Tennessee-Florida game 16 times in 18 years. Every Vol fan knows this and will be screaming for Tennessee to run, run, run.

I can't really say this any better than I did in the preview piece on this game last year, but it's all still true. Every Tennessee team that's tried to outscore Florida or throw for a ton of yards has lost. Heath Shuler threw five touchdowns against Florida and lost in 1993. Peyton Manning threw for over 400 yards against Florida and lost in 1996.

The Tennessee teams that have beaten the Gators—1998, 2001, 2003, 2004—were all committed to running the football. Sometimes it was by necessity, such as when using inexperienced quarterbacks in '98 and '04. It seems awfully necessary right now.

David Cutcliffe never fully understood this, and I think it was his greatest flaw as an offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe teams were 1-7 against the Gators.

Randy Sanders, for all his flaws, understood this and made it a point of emphasis. His teams were 3-4 against the Gators (and his 2000 offense is one of the two that won the rushing battle and still lost the game on a day the Vols had no business even being in the game, but Travis Henry's 175 yards almost got it done).

Does Dave Clawson know this? He keeps saying we've got to find what we're good at, we've got to find our fastball. In two games, our fastball is a rushing offense that's averaging six yards per carry, with Arian Foster averaging 7.8 yards when he gets it. That's your best option.

Learn from Auburn. Keep Florida off the field. Don't ask your quarterback to do anything other than not get you beat. And above all...run. Run. Run. Run. Run.


2. The Georgia Defensive Blueprint

How did the Dawgs beat Florida last year? Yeah, they scored 42 points...but they also sacked Tim Tebow six times and kept Florida from throwing all over the place.

Tebow finished the day with only 22 pass attempts and ran the ball only seven times. Part of that was due to his banged up shoulder, but Georgia was relentless in coming after him.

You saw it again two weeks ago with Miami. The Canes made it a point of emphasis to harass Tebow at every turn. By the fourth quarter, penalties helped finish off what little momentum they had built, and when Tebow found more time he tore them apart. But both defenses sent everybody after Tebow and trusted their secondary to make plays.

Does this put you at risk to give up the big one? Yes. But it also means your defense can turn some big ones of their own.

Tennessee's secondary is trustworthy. DeAngelo Willingham hasn't been beat all year, and Eric Berry/Demetrice Morley should be the best safety tandem in the SEC. Berry is the best individual player in the Vol secondary since Deon Grant, and he's only a sophomore. And the Vols are deep and experienced.

Playing a soft zone to keep everything in front of you is a terrible idea. Florida's speed will make defenders miss, and they'll eventually pick the Vols apart and wear down the defense, again. The priority has to be putting everything up front, stopping a Florida run game that's been largely subpar from the tailback spot, and putting contact on Tebow.

The biggest thing the defense that gave up 59 points last year could do early is hit Tebow.

It doesn't have to be a sack. Just a hit of consequence. Something to get that big roar from the Neyland crowd, which will be full of fans who are highly skeptical but will still be there if the Vols do something good.

One of the biggest plays in the 35-14 stunner against Georgia last year was the opening kickoff, when a finally-healthy Britton Colquitt kicked it into the end zone for a touchback for the first time all year.

No matter how angry and upset the Vol faithful were about what had happened earlier in the season, from that play on they were locked into the game at hand because the team gave them something to cheer about—even something small and seemingly insignificant.

A hit on Tebow early would both restore some swagger in the Vol D that was toyed with last year, and put the fanbase in the moment and make them the factor they should be.

Trust your secondary. Play up front and don't let Florida find its running game. And make Tebow the target.

3. "Johnny, don't be a hero!"

If the Vols ask Jonathan Crompton to beat Florida the way they asked him to beat UCLA, it's going to be a long day for him and us.

As mentioned earlier, Crompton needs to be enrolled in the Tee Martin School of Quarterbacking: Don't get us beat, throw it away when you need to, manage an offense that should be run-oriented. You don't need to make those laser rocket arm throws. You need first downs, not touchdowns.

Crompton has a good connection with Lucas Taylor and Gerald Jones, and we're all excited to see what Brandon Warren can do with more touches.

This one starts with Dave Clawson not asking him to do too much and emphasizing the run, and Crompton playing wise football instead of hero football. Keep it simple, and you won't look so stupid.

4. Turnovers

Usually the most telling statistic in any game. The Vols are tied for second nationally with seven interceptions...and they've only played two games with an off week in between. If a ball comes loose, the Vols need to be there.

Florida is a great team that requires the opposition to make the most of opportunities given them. What the Vols failed to do against UCLA, they must do if Florida gives it away.

Likewise, this needs to be a two-hands-on-the-football day for the Vol offense. The biggest play in the Florida game last year was Arian Foster's fumble on a drive that—remember?—saw the Vols with the ball down 28-20. In one moment it was 35-20, and then it was over.

Crompton can't play the hero. Foster can't fumble. The Vols must be opportunistic to win.

5. Finding The Rhythm

This is really all of them combined into one. Vol fans aren't going to wait until 2009 for the Clawfense to start firing on more cylinders than not. We're neither blind nor stupid and when you say you're still looking for your fastball, we all know it's the running game.

Sure, hitting some deep passes would keep the defense honest. But you need to force-feed them some honesty with the tailbacks and the offensive line.

Playing this game at home, the crowd can make a difference in disrupting Florida's rhythm. It's very important for something good to happen early for the Vols—it'll give those who doubt a reason to believe, and it'll make this team play with the confidence necessary to beat Florida.

More importantly, early rhythm is key. Crompton has started really well in both games this season, whether that's due to scripted plays or something else. But the key, again, isn't 300 yards passing—it's consistency.

Run the football. Keep Florida off the field. Go after Tebow and trust your secondary when they are on the field. Keep everything simple for Jonathan Crompton and make sure he plays within himself. And if the Gators give you an opportunity, take advantage of it. This is the rhythm we're looking for.

Look, we're still Tennessee, and nobody is going to leave Saturday shaking our heads at a loss but proud of our effort. No one is going to shrug their shoulders and chalk up a loss to less talent, because it's not a talent issue.

The same people who are all upset right now still, deep down, have a level of expectation with this football team that will surface on Saturday afternoon. They get pissed because they expect to win. Because at Tennessee that's always the expectation.

Don't sell me on we can't or that Florida's automatically five touchdowns better than us. If the Vols come out throwing and play soft zone, we're going to get buried under an avalanche of three and outs and find ourselves in a three-possession hole in the second quarter that will negate the ability to run the football.

So yeah, if that happens, we could get beat, and beat badly.

But if the Vols focus on doing what they do best, and then actually go out there and do it...then we're in for a fight.

An early turnover and an early score give the Vols hope and momentum to play with confidence. A good Florida team battles back, but a game Vol team stays with them. Daniel Lincoln knocks one home to give the Vols a tight lead late, and Eric Berry saves the day by forcing a turnover on the final drive. Son.

Will's Pick: Tennessee 23, Florida 21


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