Florida vs. Tennessee: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
Welcome to the Tennessee-Florida football broken record, version 12.0.
Stop if you've heard this one before: The Gators simply own the Volunteers.
It's been 11 seasons since UT walked away from this "rivalry" game victorious. That was way back in 2004 when Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit redeemed a missed extra point and hit a game-winning 50-yard field goal to give the Vols a victory.
Since then, so much has happened. There are middle schoolers who've never seen a Vols win over the SEC East division foe.
For UT fans, there have been varying degrees of frustration—from being awful on the field while the Gators were winning national championships, to losing to terrible Florida teams to finding inexplicable ways to lose. Meanwhile, no matter what degree of difficulty UF is going through, it has the confidence it will win this game.
Can the Vols exorcise the reptilian demons, or will Florida extend its streak to an even dozen? Let's get to everything you need to know about this game, which could determine who has the early upper hand in the division.
Date: Saturday, September 24
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium
Spread: Tennessee -6.5, according to Odds Shark
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Play to win
When the Vols see those orange-and-blue uniforms, they go weak in the knees, whether physically or psychologically.
No matter what UT wants to say, the spell Florida has on the Vols right now is mostly mental.
The Gators know they can win, and Tennessee hopes it can. That's how it seems, anyway. It's happened too much to think otherwise. UT often plays tight, whether pressing or in anticipation of what a win would mean for the program.
"Everybody understands in our football program what this game is," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones told the media Monday. "It's special, it's a rivalry game and that is why you go to college."
Last year, UT coached tight and, quite frankly, not very smart. The Vols elected to kick an extra point rather than go for two to make their lead 27-14. Then, they went into clock-milking mode and even played extra conservatively on defense down the stretch.
The result was a 28-27 Gators win.
Jones needs to trust his players, and they need to pull out all the stops in the game plan. That's the only way to break this streak.
Hang on to the ball
During the first three years of Jones' tenure, Tennessee was one of college football's most disciplined teams.
That hasn't been the case this year.
The Vols are killing themselves with drive-killing fumbles, penalties and failures on first and second downs. The miscues are puzzling.
Against Virginia Tech, UT had just one interception, but it fumbled twice, recovering both. Against Ohio, the Vols had five fumbles, but again covered all of them. If those go the other way, the Vols may have a losing record. They also had nine penalties for 94 yards against the Bobcats.
"I am pulling my hair out," Jones told the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Jonathan Toye.
They can't do that against the Gators.
Florida Keys to Victory
Bottle up Dobbs
Just because Tennessee scored 27 points against Florida last year doesn't mean the Vols dominated on offense.
But the Gators had precious few answers for UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who became the first player since Tulsa's James Kilian in 2003 to lead his team in passing, rushing and receiving yards. He had 135 rushing yards on 18 carries, passed for 83 yards and also had a 58-yard reception.
The Gators can't let him amass 276 total yards again, or they'll probably be in trouble. Most importantly, they've got to spy him, make him one-dimensional and hope the Vols can't beat them on the strength of Dobbs' arm.
If they let him get loose running the ball, it could be a streak-ending mistake. They don't seem concerned.
"I feel like our defense is ready for any team in the country. Tennessee, whoever," defensive tackle Joey Ivie IV told SEC Country's Ryan Young. "Obviously the focus is Tennessee this week, but I feel like we have that type of defense that we're ready for whoever we play."
Dobbs will be a major test, but he has rarely proved he can beat teams when opponents take away his running ability.
Starting quarterback Luke Del Rio's knee injury puts a wrench into things for Florida, but the Gators have an experienced backup in Austin Appleby.
Even if that experience came while at Purdue.
The Gators need to work him into the offense slowly, letting him complete some high-percentage passes and also get receivers in matchup mismatches with UT walk-on middle linebacker Colton Jumper, who struggles in coverage.
If UF can hit some intermediate routes and get some big gains on catch-and-runs, Appleby will boost his confidence, and the Gators can start flinging it around a little. That would ultimately be bad news for the Vols.
Tennessee Players to Watch
Prior to last year, the team with the most rushing yards had won the past 12 meetings.
After gaining the second-most rushing yards in school history a season ago, the Vols have struggled running this year. The line has sputtered, and Hurd hasn't been himself. This would be an ideal time for him to bang and bruise his way to a 100-yard rushing effort against the Gators.
That won't be easy against possibly the best defense UT will face. But this is perhaps Hurd's last crack at the rival. He needs to show up in a big way.
All eyes will be on the banged-up shoulder of Reeves-Maybin—the Vols senior star who exited last week's game against Ohio.
While internet speculation about a torn labrum ran rampant, it was announced the outside linebacker simply has a muscle strain. He won't be 100 percent, but he'll try to play this weekend.
That's huge news for a Vols team that lost another leader, senior cornerback Cameron Sutton, for an extended period of time. Middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. also won't play after suffering a high ankle sprain against Virginia Tech.
That means JRM needs to be the beast he was expected to be, injured or not. These are the games where legends are made. It's his opportunity to battle through and cement his legacy.
Tennessee's sophomore offensive tackle has yet to play this year, but it's possible he could be ready for this weekend.
That would be massive news for a line needing all the help it can get.
If Hall plays, the Vols should be able to move everybody back where they belong and quit playing guys out of position. Most importantly, Hall is a mauler when he's healthy. But if he's not ready, it's possible he'll be another liability on the front.
UT must monitor him and manage him this week. They need him if he can go on Saturday.
Florida Players to Watch
The Gators sophomore receiver needs no introduction in this game, not after last year's 63-yard, game-winning touchdown on 4th-and-14.
But whether UF's leading pass-catcher can get on the field this week is still very much in question.
"We'll try to get Callaway back," UF head coach Jim McElwain told SEC Country's Zach Abolverdi. "He's hurting pretty good."
If Callaway plays, he could be a UT killer again; especially with Sutton out, Emmanuel Moseley struggling and a true freshman starter in Baylen Buchanan.
Tabor's intro will be met with a loud chorus of "boos" at Neyland Stadium.
The Gators junior star cornerback has talked trash about Tennessee all offseason, but he's good enough to back it up. He's a throwback player to those old Steve Spurrier-coached Gators who jawed all week and then upheld the swagger with a big-time performance.
The Vols would be wise to keep the ball from going in his direction, but if they do pick on him and get some yards, you'd better believe the crowd will let him hear it. Tabor is a future NFL corner, though, so UT should tread lightly.
Tennessee has a long, storied history of turning Florida Gators defensive ends into household names.
The names Jevon Kearse and Alex Brown no doubt send shudders down the spines of Vols fans everywhere, and that's just to name a pair.
Perhaps the best player on UF's defense you've never heard of is Zuniga, who has four sacks already, leading to Gator Country's Jackson Ramer to ask in a recent column if he's the Gators' next elite pass-rusher.
Tennessee must tackle offensive tackle issues head-on, and Zuniga must be licking his chops to get after Dobbs this weekend. The Vols must slow him and CeCe Jefferson down.
What They're Saying
Florida safety Marcus Maye said of the SEC East favorite Vols at SEC media days, according to Gator Country's Nick De La Torre:
"You hear it all the time, every year," he said. "It is what it is. I guess they feel like we lost a lot of pieces, but I feel like we’re just as talented with the guys that are stepping in for them. We’re always going to be the Gators, and they’re always going to be Tennessee, so what you see is what you get."
By now, everybody knows the things Tabor said about Tennessee all through the offseason. Now, he's ready to back it up.
He hopes all his trash-talking will lead to the Vols trying to pick on him, according to Scout.com's Josslyn Howard: "Oh I want them to. My momma always told me if you play with fire, you get burnt."
Jones told Toye all the extra-curricular chatter doesn't add any extra bulletin-board buzz.
You shouldn't need the (trash talk) to motivate you. If you are a true competitor and you have great competitive grit that we have talked about, these are the games you live for, these are the games you want to play in. When you only have 12 opportunities all year and you are a great competitor, you're up for every single game. So no, we don't use it as motivation. I am just working to get better. It doesn't do us any good to talk about it.
Vols safety Micah Abernathy told GoVols247's Wes Rucker of the Gators: "They talk. That's something they do. We just let our fieldwork do our talking. We just play."
The past two years, I picked Tennessee to beat Florida. The past two years, craziness ensued, and the Gators won both times.
Does Tennessee have the firepower to topple the Gators for the first time in 2004? Absolutely. They even "should" beat Florida, especially with UF starting quarterback Luke Del Rio out. Even with Florida's dominant defense, the Vols have enough quality players to win this game.
Throw in the fact it is being played at Neyland Stadium, the home folks are "checkering" the crowd with orange and white, everybody is going to be hyped because ESPN's College GameDay crew will be on hand— and the Vols will be wearing the "Smokey" gray uniforms—and all signs point to the streak ending.
But this Vols team hasn't played well yet this year. It's proved to be undisciplined, and the offense has struggled significantly. It all starts with the offensive front, and to think it will be able to slow down an amazing Florida front seven is a tall task.
If you can't score, you can't win, and it's going to be tough for the Vols to put up points if they keep playing the way they have been.
Maybe we haven't seen the Vols who will show up on Saturday, because that team can't beat the Gators. Until that team shows up, you've got to prognosticate thinking the one that's been on the field so far will be the one that plays on Saturday.
If that's the case, the Gators will win a sloppy showdown and make it 12 straight.
Prediction: Gators 23, Vols 20