Tennessee Volunteers vs. Florida Gators Complete Game Preview
It's been nine long years since the Tennessee Volunteers tasted victory against the heated, hated rival Florida Gators.
But unlike most recent games between the two teams, Saturday's game appears wide open.
Both the Vols and Gators have considerable holes. They've combined for three losses already through seven total games a year removed from neither going to a bowl game.
While UT has shown flashes of being on its way back into the conference picture, Florida has its own questions under fourth-year coach Will Muschamp. He fired his offensive coordinator and hired Duke's Kurt Roper after a four-win 2013.
The Gators have had offensive issues again this year, struggling to beat Kentucky at The Swamp, then getting pummeled by Alabama.
Are these two teams passing while going in different directions? Or are the Gators still the "Mighty Gators" when they step onto the field against a Vols team that hasn't been able to get over the psychological hump against them?
UT has a huge opportunity for a major, perhaps season-altering win on Saturday. It may be the most important game of Butch Jones' Tennessee tenure so far. Let's break it down.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 4
Time: Noon ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, Gator Sports Network, Sirius/XM 91
Spread: Florida by 1 point, according to Oddsshark.com.
Cleveland, Tennessee, resident and lifelong Vols fan Spencer Barnett was scrolling through Twitter during the Oklahoma game when he ran across a picture where OU fans striped their stadium in crimson and white.
"I thought it looked nice, but it made me think we could do something like that, just a little bigger and better," Barnett said.
That's how the concept of "Checker Neyland" was hatched. The 37-year-old Barnett found an image of Neyland Stadium at near-capacity, took it into Photoshop and created the concept image of how the stadium would look checkered.
His tweet went viral, and a website [www.checkerneyland.com] and Twitter account [@Checker_Neyland] were created. Fans attending the game can go to the site, select their seating section, and it churns out your designated color to wear.
"Checker Neyland" looks like it's really happening for this weekend's rivalry game against Florida.
The UT official athletic site has embraced the idea and is promoting it heavily over the Internet and social media. If they can pull it off, it's going to be an awesome environment, and the stadium is going to be adorned in Tennessee's traditional orange-and-white checkerboards.
Barnett will be there to see it.
After checkering the stadium became a very real possibility, he went on former Vol Jayson Swain's radio show on WKVL in Knoxville, and Swain insisted Barnett allow Swain to get a him a ticket so he can experience "Checker Neyland" firsthand.
The graphic designer/layout artist for a professional photographic lab has created concepts of uniforms, helmets, etc., in the past, and they generate interest. But he never has had anything take off like this.
"To see our great fan base get behind this and to become the driving force, it has been very humbling and has left me speechless," said Barnett, who is worth a follow on Twitter at @CleVOLander.
"It's crazy to think it could happen. This whole experience has been very surreal to me, and I never could have imagined anything like this."
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Draw It Up
Tennessee has experienced struggles in the running game, but it found something against Georgia that the team needs to utilize moving forward.
As much as the Vols have passed this year, the Bulldogs were surprised when Justin Worley handed the ball to freshman star running back Jalen Hurd on delayed draws. That play was a big hit in Tennessee's 35-32 loss to UGA.
Hurd had runs of 18 and 19 yards on the delayed handoffs, and that success helped keep the defense honest when it came to blitzing after UGA got exposed up the gut.
It could be tough sledding running the ball straight ahead against Florida's front seven, but UT needs to keep using that play and force the Gators to pay attention to the play.
Keep Playing That Broken Record
You'll probably get sick of reading this throughout the season, but until the Vols actually do it, protecting quarterback Justin Worley is going to be a huge key to winning any major game.
When Nathan Peterman replaced an injured Worley for a long stretch of the second half against Georgia, UT's offense was putrid. The Vols simply cannot afford to lose him.
That's why offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian must keep drawing up three-step drop passes, draws and play-action. UT also has to fix its offensive line holes quickly.
Every opponent is going to bring the heat until the Vols prove they can stop the blitz. They haven't yet.
Cut the Killers
Tennessee has played two of the nation's toughest offensive teams in Oklahoma and Georgia, two games the Vols had to play almost perfectly to win.
And two plays really stand out as the cripplers: a 100-yard pick-six against the Sooners and a fumbled handoff exchange by Hurd that was recovered in the end zone for a Georgia score.
Simply put, UT has to stop making those killer mistakes. The Vols are a young team, sure, but those can't be made if the Vols are going to break through for wins. Coach Butch Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required):
This team is growing up, and it's painful. It's growing pains. But they're growing up and they're maturing, and these are illustrations that we will point towards for the next three, four, five years of their career. And I see progress. Unfortunately, like I said (after the) Oklahoma game, sometimes it's not evidenced in the score. But I see progress being made every week.
Florida Keys to Victory
Dris-Kills the Vols
Jeff Driskel shredded Tennessee during his last trip to Neyland Stadium two years ago, and unfortunately for him, that was pretty much the peak of a frustrating career.
During that game, he completed 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards and two scores, and he added 81 rushing yards in a 37-20 win.
He was injured for the season last year against UT in Gainesville, and he's struggled so much this year that coach Will Muschamp gave him the dreaded vote of confidence last week, telling The Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu he gives UF the best chance to win "right now."
Driskel is to the point of his career where his job depends on how he plays against the Vols.
Somehow, he has to rekindle what it was that made him special in his last trip to Neyland. Unfortunately for him, Sal Sunseri isn't walking through that door.
Run, Run, Run
Tennessee's defense has been exceptional in certain situations this year. The Vols lead the nation in third-down efficiency, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker, and is fifth in the league in passing defense.
But they've really struggled in rush defense, currently sitting last in the league allowing 169 yards per game. Playing Georgia and Oklahoma is not easy on an average.
The Gators have some weapons with Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor who can keep UT's undersized defensive linemen on their heels. They've got to feed them constantly and generate first downs on the ground to keep the ball away from Justin Worley.
Isn't That Special?
Maybe it's the ghost of Brandon James, but Florida always seems to generate huge special teams plays against the Vols.
While UT's kick coverage teams were improved against Georgia, they still allowed a big punt return by freshman Isaiah McKenzie to set up the Bulldogs' first score.
Tennessee cannot afford to give up a long return against UF, a team that isn't electrifying offensively. Against Georgia, UT proved it wasn't scared when it kicked to Todd Gurley. If the Vols are going to do the same with Andre Debose, they've just got to keep him contained.
Too many times, Florida has gotten an advantage over the Vols with a huge special teams play.
Tennessee Players to Watch
Any of Tennessee's five offensive linemen could have occupied this spot on the list, but Kerbyson had a particularly forgettable game against Georgia.
While the Vols didn't give up as many sacks as they did against Oklahoma, it still wasn't a good day for the offensive line, who saw Justin Worley get hurt in a pivotal stretch of the game and Nathan Peterman relentlessly harassed in his stead.
Kerbyson should get a bit of a pass playing out of position at left tackle, but the bottom line is he's an upperclassman, and the Vols depend on him. He has to be better, and the unit has to be better. They have to protect the quarterback and allow plays to develop downfield.
That crucial fumble against Georgia will haunt Hurd, but there isn't any time for him to dwell on that play in his surge to stardom.
The freshman running back is getting better every game he plays. Throughout the first four games of the year, he has gone from 29 to 83 to 97 to 119 rushing yards, according to UTSports.com. That totals 328 yards and a couple of scores on the ground.
Worley told The Tennessean's David Climer after the UGA game that Hurd is "playing lights out."
"He's a great addition to our offense," Worley said. "He's explosive. Having him helps."
Hurd also has proven he's adept catching the ball out of the backfield, with seven receptions for 59 yards and another score. UT needs him to keep growing up quickly and put up some huge numbers against the Gators.
It's hard to steal any headlines with A.J. Johnson playing next to you, but UT's heat-seeking-missile sophomore linebacker is doing his best to.
The game against Georgia was the best of his career as he tallied 10 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss and a sack.
He has All-SEC potential, and he is the poster boy for the Vols' rejuvenated, speed-oriented defense. With Florida wanting to run the football, JRM again will be a crucial component to Saturday's game.
Florida Players to Watch
A year ago, Fowler single-handedly destroyed the Vols along with Nathan Peterman's psyche in Florida's win in Gainesville.
This year, UF's pass-rushing specialist has been good but not great in a season that was supposed to propel him toward the NFL. In three games, he has 13 tackles including 3.5 for a loss and one sack.
But he saves his best football for the Vols. Last year, he had three tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and a sack against UT.
Fowler must be licking his chops to go against UT's young and poor offensive line. The Vols have to focus on him and keep him off the quarterback. He has the potential to be a dominant pass-rusher who can change the game with one play. The Vols have to keep him from doing that.
Despite all the uncertainties surrounding Florida's offense, the Gators have got a star in their 6'2" sophomore receiver.
Thus far, Robinson has accumulated 23 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He'll doubtlessly draw special attention from UT's stout secondary, and it's likely fellow sophomore Cameron Sutton will be charged with slowing him down Saturday.
Though Robinson has proven his worth on the field, he should be careful off it.
Robinson made a blunder on Twitter that indicated some dissension in the ranks, retweeting a suggestion that the Gators needed a change at quarterback, according to Alligator Army's Andy Hutchins.
Robinson should stick to torching defenders rather than his own quarterback.
Vernon Hargreaves III
Saturday's game may feature the two best cornerbacks in the conference with VHIII and "Sunday" Sutton.
Thankfully for the Vols, one of them is on their side. But Justin Worley and Co. must be aware of where VHIII is on the field at all times.
If Tennessee can get Von Pearson and/or Josh Smith healthy, the Gators are going to have a difficult time matching up with all those weapons. But you have to figure that VHIII will get a steady diet of Marquez North coverage.
Since UT has to get North involved in the game plan to win, that will be a key matchup for both sides.
What They're Saying
When the Twitter fallout began after Demarcus Robinson retweeted a tweet calling for a change at quarterback for his Gators, Robinson immediately went into scramble mode.
He retracted the statement with a tweet that read:
"I believe in each and every last one of our QB's ! #BeatTennessee"
For now, Jeff Driskel is the Gators' quarterback, but coach Will Muschamp may not be far from making a change.
Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist John Adams didn't pull any punches when discussing why the Vols-Gators rivalry game—once one of the biggest battles in the nation, much less the conference—can't get prime billing this week.
The game is set for noon Eastern time, which hamstrings UT hosting recruits in what the Vols hoped would be a big weekend. With all the stellar games going on this weekend, though, Adams offered his thoughts:
The Tennessee-Florida game once commanded national attention. Now, it can’t make the top three on the SEC marquee.
That’s not a sudden development. The two teams were a combined 9-15 last season.
Both Mississippi programs in the SEC have more clout than the Vols and Gators. The way Tennessee and Florida have fared recently, they should be grateful that the SEC has its own network. Otherwise, they might be on Pay-Per-View this Saturday.
Sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has heard all the excuses about his team being one of the youngest (if not the youngest) in the nation. Quite honestly, he's sick of it.
To him, the Vols may be young, but they're ready to win now, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):
Honestly, I feel like our team is grown up. I've been feeling like that. The media says we're young and might have an immature team, but I don't see that at all. I know those guys are fighting for me, and I know I'm fighting for them. That's not a worry of ours.
The last time Tennessee beat Florida, Ron Zook coached the Gators and Phillip Fulmer coached the Vols.
That was before Urban Meyer returned Florida to a national powerhouse and Will Muschamp spiraled it backward. It was before Fulmer fell out of favor, got fired and UT began its comedy of errors that included hiring Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.
It's been a long time.
Long enough, actually.
That nine-year streak is going to end Saturday in Neyland Stadium. This Tennessee team is young but good and getting better. The Vols have proven they can stop the pass and stop drives on third downs.
The offense has found a proven playmaker at quarterback in Justin Worley, who just continues to get better, and the Vols have found a future star in running back Jalen Hurd.
While Florida has some weapons, the Gators don't have Todd Gurley. They don't have Trevor Knight. They don't have that kind of offensive star who resides on a different planet than UT's defenders.
Because of that and because they're going to have a rowdy crowd smelling a streak-ending win in Neyland, the Vols are going to (finally) get it done against UF. And this will be the catalyst that helps Butch Jones' program take the next step toward the postseason.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Florida 23
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. All quotes gathered firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.