Game One: New Mexico State Aggies
Game Two: East Carolina Pirates
Game Three: Kentucky Wildcats
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.
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.
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