Florida Gators Season Preview: Game four, Tennessee Volunteers

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PREVIOUSLY PREVIEWING

Game One: New Mexico State Aggies

Game Two: East Carolina Pirates

Game Three: Kentucky Wildcats

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Coach: Butch Jones, 3rd year (12-13)

2014 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC), def. Iowa in TaxSlayer (Gator) Bowl

Last meeting: Florida 10, Tennessee 9 (2015)

All time series: Florida, 25-19

Streak: Florida, 10

The skinny: The Tennessee Volunteers have long been considered irrelevant in the SEC East race. Last year was the first year they even made a bowl game since 2010, and was just their second winning season since 2007. Their ineptitude against Florida has gone on for even longer. Not only has Florida won ten straight in the rivalry, but the Gators have also won 18 of the last 22 as well as 23 of the last 29. The Gators haven’t just dominated the series the past decade. Their ownage of Tennessee dates back to the 1970’s, well before the teams became annual opponents. Tennessee swears this is their year, and although their fans have been saying that for several years now, this time I might be willing to believe them.

Offensive breakdown

Returning starters: 10

A year ago, this offense had little to no experience. This year, experience is all they have. Tennessee returns 10 of 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball, the most notable of whom is QB Joshua Dobbs. He basically came out of nowhere in 2014, going from the third team QB to the starter who guided the Vols to a bowl game (and bowl win) in a matter of weeks. OK, so each of his four wins as the starter came over teams with six or more losses, but that’s still better than most other Tennessee QB’s have done in recent years. He’s a true dual threat QB, and has even been mentioned in a few non-Tennessee message boards as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.

But Dobbs was helped by a great set of skill players last year, and he’ll have each of them back again this year. It starts with the running game. Between Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Tennessee could quietly have the nation’s best backfield. Hurd tallied 899 yards on the ground last year, including 122 in the Gator Bowl victory against Iowa (I refuse to call it the TaxSlayer Bowl, as that feels so wrong). To boot, they have an offensive line that returns all five starters- Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Johnson, Jashon Robertson and Coleson Thomas- from a year ago, the first three of whom are seniors. Just one problem: that offensive line yielded the most sack yardage of any Big Five conference school. So the experience they have isn’t necessarily good experience.

The offense is rounded out by a veteran group of receivers. Marquez North will look to rebound from his 2014 season ending injury, and getting him back would be a boost for an offense that would have plenty of capable receivers without him anyway. Pig Howard and Josh Malone combined for just shy of 1000 yards last year despite the turbulence at the QB position, and starting tight end Ethan Wolf returns as well. So there you have it. Tennessee’s offense is pretty experienced. Will it be explosive? Maybe, maybe not. But definitely experienced.

Offensive Grade: B+. Tennessee returns all but one starter on its offense, which is good. But like with Kentucky, there’s a difference between Tennessee returning 10 starters and Florida returning 10 starters. Still, there’s lots of promise with Dobbs at the controls. The Vols could win some shootouts.

Defensive breakdown

Returning starters: 8

Tennessee’s front seven could quietly be one of the best in the nation. The Vols get back Curt Maggitt (11 sacks in 2014) and Derek Barnett (10) to form the SEC East’s top pass rushing duo. Maggitt also plays linebacker at times, making him a sneaky weapon for defensive coordinator John Jancek to play around with.

At the linebacker spot, Jalen Reeves-Maybin is coming off a breakout sophomore season, but pending what Jancek does with Maggitt, the rest of the second level is a question mark. Jakob Johnson, Chris Weatherd and Cortez McDowell will all compete for playing time, but none have ever seen much action yet. They’ll have to step up and fill the void left by departed linebacker AJ Johnson, or else this whole defense could be in trouble.

The secondary should again be stout. Cameron Sutton returns to his corner position, while seniors Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil return to their strong and free safety positions, respectively. The only key departed starter back there is nickel cornerback Justin Coleman, but Rashaan Gaulden has received nothing but praise in his campaign to replace him. Plus, Tennessee has added JUCO cornerback Justin Martin, who’s also drawn high praise from the coaching staff.

Defensive Grade: B-. Tennessee could have the best pass rush in the SEC East. But questions at the linebacker position make me hesitate on saying that this defense is ready to win them games in the SEC.

Tennessee wins if… they’re able to score touchdowns in the red zone. Florida’s defense is probably too good to let Tennessee get inside their 20 a whole lot of times, so the Vols must capitalize with seven points when they do get there. Settling for field goals in a game where points could be at a premium is not the way to pull off the upset in the Swamp.

Florida wins if… they don’t turn the ball over. The Gators tried really, really hard to lose to the Vols each of the last two years with an ugly array of “what the hell is wrong with you” type turnovers, but miraculously didn’t. Screw the opening Vegas betting lines, when you win 10 straight and 23 out of 29, you’re automatically the favorite to win. But self inflicted wounds are every favorite’s kryptonite.

Three things to watch for:

1) The Gators need to contain the edges and make sure Josh Dobbs doesn’t get any funny ideas, like rolling out and then taking off for 30 yards because everybody’s focus was downfield. Dobbs is athletic enough to make some plays with his legs. Florida can’t just turn their back on him and make Dobbs’ work easy, or Dobbs will make easy work of Florida.

2) Not only can Florida not turn the ball over, but they need to sustain drives and keep the ball out of Dobbs’ hands as much as they can. The Tennessee offense could be dangerous if it gets going, and one way to ensure that it doesn’t get going is to hold onto the ball for long periods of time. They’ll need a great performance from their offensive line in order to do this, and they’ll need Kelvin Taylor, Adam Lane and Jordan Scarlett to all be ready to chip in. This is also important because it’s going to be the first true big game Will Grier (assuming he wins the job) has played in, so taking the pressure off him with a great rushing performance would help him immensely.

3) We know Jonathan Bullard is a beast. He’ll probably give Tennessee some trouble. But what about the other side of the line? Taven Bryan, Bryan Cox and Alex McCallister will likely all see playing time against the Vols, and it’s time for one- or more- of them to step up and declare himself a playmaker on this defense with a solid performance. It’s a good test for Tennessee’s offensive line, and will determine if all that experience really means anything.

Tennessee overall grade: B+. Watch out. Tennessee isn’t a walkover anymore. They may not win the SEC East, and they may not even be better than Florida. But they’re not the doormat they have been for the past decade

Overview: Trap. Game. For the second week in a row.

No, I’m not one of those who thinks that the number of returning starters determines how a team will fare in a given year. But Tennessee has experience on its offensive line (something Florida doesn’t have) and a true dual threat quarterback who could come out of nowhere and emerge as a stunning Heisman candidate. In previous years, I’ve laughed the Vols off and dismissed them as petty afterthoughts in the SEC East race. No longer. This year, they’re a legitimate contender in the SEC East race- and more importantly for our purposes, a threat to end the massive losing streak.

So yes, Florida will struggle against Tennessee, just like they did last year in Knoxville. But while Tennessee has gotten better, so has Florida. Grier is a major upgrade from Jeff Driskel. Florida’s secondary is not just good, it’s one of the best in the nation with everybody returning from last year. And oh yeah, Florida actually has a competent head coach on the sidelines this time around- one whose top priority is to reclaim the Swamp after the previous coach left it a quagmire. I credit Tennessee for making vast improvements and concede the fact that defeat is a real possibility, but I’m convinced that McElwain will have his team ready for this one just as much as Jones. Make it Elevenessee.

Projection: Florida 24, Tennessee 20

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12 thoughts on “Florida Gators Season Preview: Game four, Tennessee Volunteers

  1. I think we may lose this one. If our line comes together we may pull it out BUT this could be the end of the streak.

  2. Some valid points but in the Hrand scheme I dont see us at 4-0 at this point. We drop this game or at Kentucky in a low scoring close game. Both of these teams would make human sacrifices to end our streak against both of them. Probably a loss due to turnovers and putting our defense on a short field. Think Mizzpu game last year

  3. If we do lose, McElwain’s job is obviously still safe, but its gotta heighten the pressure next year, no?

  4. I think the UT game will finally have the gargantuan-game feel we all remember when they got together in the 90’s and early 00’s. It’ll be hotly contested, and maybe even have multiple lead changes throughout. I believe this game will prove to be the beginning of UF’s home field advantage resurgence, meaning people will look back on this game as the one that finally felt big-time in the Swamp where UF rallied behind a raucous crowd to pull out the W, starting a run of the intimidating atmosphere and high-percentage winning ratio we so desperately are looking to experience at home again.

  5. I really don’t think Florida will have too much trouble tbh. Like you said… Tennessee may be better, like everyone else is talking about. But you know what else? FLORIDA will be better, too. Nobody is talking about that. And I think the hunger that stems from that, plus the hunger created by the last two years, will fuel this team to a big win. 41-24 Florida.

  6. It comes down to line play and turnovers. Whoever gets pressure on the QB and forces turnovers wins this one.

    I like our boys by 8.

  7. Several points. One is that you need to be at least honorable mention All-SEC to be a ‘beast’ and Bullard doesn’t qualify. He was becoming a force as a tackle towards the end of last year, but, I think, the plan is to move him back to defensive end, a spot where he was not even close to being a good player.
    Second, I have no idea why Florida will be better this year. It’d be great to believe that, but there is more reason to think UF will be worse. UF still doesn’t have a proven quarterback, they do return their starter, but Harris didn’t exactly scare anyone last year, and this hype over Grier is based on absolutely nothing. To go along with an offensive line that may be horrible, remember how bad Tennessee’s offensive line has been recently, UF may be even worse on offense. I don’t care how good a coach you are, if you can’t block anybody, you’re going to be destroyed.
    Third, the game will not mean anything, except to the teams fans. Both will be unranked, and I expect Tennessee will again be clobbered by Oklahoma before facing Florida, so no one is going to pay attention.
    Fourth, I’ve yet to see any reason to think that Butch Jones is a good coach. For that reason, I still see UF winning because Jones will figure out a way to lose. Tennessee dominated Florida last year, yet still found a way to lose. It’s hard for me to believe that the same thing won’t happen this year.
    Fifth, it’s not going to be as much fun to watch the sidelines this year. Both Muschamp and Jones were comical with the way they competed to see who could burst a blood vessel first. Now we no longer have Muschamp to laugh at.
    Fifth, I just hope for a good game. The past two years were some of the worst displays of how football should be played by a pair of teams, it was so bad that even the announcers cringed at what incredible screw up one team would do next.It’d be a refreshing relief to see a game where one or both teams actually looked like they hadn’t ever played a game before. I think the game from a couple of years ago is the worst performance I’ve ever seen. It was more of a comedy of errors than anything else, with UF being slightly less inept.Please let UF, at least, look like it knows what it’s doing.

  8. Snow:

    You may be correct, however at least our defense should be able to put on a show.
    I also have a feeling that even though our talent on Offense may be lacking, this coaching staff should be able to reduce the slop.

    In any event, we are ALL undefeated right now.

    1. I agree with you. The hope of UF not looking inept on offense will be an improvement. I don’t know about the level of talent, and UF’s offense may still be poor, but It doesn’t need to look like the Keystone Cops. I just want UF’s offense to not be a weapon for the other team. The most glaring example of that was the Missouri game last year. Pinkel figured out, very quickly, that Missouri could just sit back and let Florida hand you the game. One other thing, I still can’t figure out how UF allowed so many special team touchdowns in that game. UF may not have talented players on offense, but they do have plenty of talented athletes that should be a force on special teams. It’s not complicated. Stay in your lanes and make a tackle, how difficult is that?

  9. lol enough with this, every year Tennessee says they’re back and every year they’re not. So they made a bowl game last year, woo hoo. Good for them. Florida’s gonna lose plenty of games in Mac’s first year, but I can’t believe they’ll lose this one.

  10. To believe this is going to be the Tennessee of the Dooley regime is foolhardy. While I agree that Butch Jones has much to prove, he has been up against it, inheriting the biggest mess in Vol history. If they remain healthy, this Tennessee defensive line will be one of the best in the SEC. Two five star DT’s will seriously upgrade a defense that was solid a year ago. The nation’s number one prospect Kahlil McKenzie will become a household name from day one. He is a 6′ 4″ 320 lb man child whos father played for the Oakland Raiders.
    Keep in mind that Josh Dobbs has yet to play with a healthy wr corp as a starter. Marquez North was injured all of last season. He will re-emerge as one of the nations top receivers. As for sacks last season, the oline improved dramatically once Dobbs became qb.
    This team is a year away from being an SEC or national championship contender. They can win a mediocre east this season.

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