Previewing Florida’s 2017 Opponents: Game Three, Tennessee Volunteers

Todd Kelly vs. Antonio Callaway, Round 3 is just one of the lesser subplots of this year’s Florida-Tennessee game.

Whatever happens in the first two games of the season- by which I really mean against Michigan- Florida’s season kicks off for real against the Tennessee Volunteers. Sure, Michigan provides Florida with a fantastic opportunity to vault itself back into the nation’s elite, but there’s no better way to prove you’re elite than by winning the SEC. And in order to do that, you have to win the SEC East, a task that the Gators managed to pull off last year despite losing this game thanks to a massive Tennessee collapse down the stretch… but a task that we can all agree is made easier by beating the Vols.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (2016: 9-4)
Head Coach Returning starters 2016 offense 2016 defense
Butch Jones 5 offense, 6 defense 444 YPG/36.4 PPG 460 YPG/29.3 PPG
30-21, 5th year 59%, 63% of stat production 40th/24th in FBS 109th/73d in FBS

All time series: Florida 26, Tennessee 20

Last meeting: Tennessee 38, Florida 28

Synopsis: Tennessee will lose most of its big name players from a year ago, but that’s not to say the Vols will completely fall off the map in 2017. And no team will be as prepared to play them more than Florida after the Gators choked away a 21 point lead a year ago in a streak-snapping defeat. Many are pointing to Michigan as the Gators’ first big game of the year, and there’s no denying the stakes in that game. But for a Gator squad that’s seeking its third straight trip to Atlanta- not to mention some payback- the 2017 begins in earnest against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Offensive overview: The Vols lose their quarterback in Josh Dobbs, both pieces of what was supposed to be the SEC’s top running back duo in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and what feels like everybody who caught a pass a year ago not named Jauan Jennings. Tennessee recruits well enough to provide capable backups, but now it’s time for Butch Jones & Co. to get to work transforming potential into results.

Offensive breakdown: The first order of business for Butch Jones and new offensive coordinator Larry Scott is to find a quarterback to replace Dobbs, and he’s got two guys with different skill sets to choose from. Junior Quinten Dormady, a traditional pro-style QB with a big arm and a small dose of live action in his back pocket (in mop up time, but still), figures to be in the lead for the job right now. Dormady had a nearly perfect showing in the Vols’ spring game, and that probably gives him the leg up on dual threat QB Jarrett Guarantano. But don’t expect a definitive answer to be given until we get closer to September here.

The problem for Tennessee figures to be in the running game. It’ll help that the Vols return four offensive linemen from a year ago, and incoming freshman Trey Smith figures to grab a starting spot right away, but who’s going to carry the football? Not Alvin Kamara, who’s off to the New Orleans Saints, and not Jalen Hurd, who’s off to Baylor. It’s an understatement to say that this duo failed to live up to their expectations a year ago. About the only tested runner the Vols have left is John Kelly- and he’s a good one. But finding depth behind him will be critical. Carlin Fils-Aim appears to be second in line, and behind him? Nothing but freshmen.

Tennessee’s receiver corps is a major question, too. There’s Jauan Jennings, who was last seen lighting Jalen Tabor on fire, and he’s certainly among the best pass catchers in the country. But the story is the same here: not much to speak of behind him. Sophomores Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson figure to be next in line, and they’ll need to step up immediately to complement Jennings.

Offensive Grade: C+. Dormady and Jennings could create a deadly combo, and Kelly could emerge as a breakout runner. But if Tennessee can’t get production out of anybody behind them, it’s not going to matter.

Defensive overview: Tennessee has to be better defensively in 2017 if they have any intention of competing for the East. On a nearly game-by-game basis, the Vols found themselves getting torched. Sometimes they survived (Florida, Georgia and Missouri), and sometimes they didn’t (Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has plenty of talent to work with, but he’s certainly got his work cut out for him in terms of turning the unit around.

Defensive breakdown: Tennessee essentially loses its top player or two on each level of the defense, but has everybody else behind them coming back. And it starts in the trenches. Newcomer Jonathan Kongbo will team up with Khalil McKenzie on the defensive line, and while it’ll be very difficult to replace Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, the Tennessee coaches really seem to like these two. Matching the 20 sacks Barnett and Vereen totaled a year ago won’t be easy, but maybe these two will help the Vols improve a little in the run defense.

Losing Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker will hurt, but Darrin Kirkland is back after missing most of 2016 with an ankle injury. Kirkland has immediately been identified as the leader of this defense, as he boasts the most experience of anybody, but he’s going to need help. Cortez McDowell could give him some, but behind him, there are more questions than answers. Shoop will need at least one and preferably two more linebackers to step up in order to feel good here.

Perhaps the strength of the unit is its secondary. Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman will have to be replaced, but there’s promise everywhere you look back there. Safety Todd Kelly returns for his senior year, and Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy provide two additional stout options at the other safety spot. Emmanuel Moseley is also back to anchor one of the two cornerback slots, while the other one will have to be filled.

Defensive grade: B-. It may not be possible for a nine win team to trot out a defense worse than Tennessee’s was a year ago (seriously… 730 yards of total offense to Missouri?), and even though they lose several of their best players from that defense, it’s not like the cupboard is bare. But this unit doesn’t jump off the page at you as particularly dominant, either. “Good, not great” seems to be a pretty fair summary.

Key matchup: Dormady vs. Florida secondary. If Tennessee is to pull the upset in Gainesville, they’ll need to get the best QB play they can get. Whether or not the Vols can develop additional pass catchers next to Jennings is another story, but sometimes, a great QB can make his receivers better and get them to grow up fast. And against a secondary that loses a lot but still features Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris and Chauncey Gardner, that’s going to be a tall order.

Florida wins if… they can establish the running game. Whoever between Feleipe Franks/Malik Zaire wins the QB job will have to do his part, but the Gators can make things much easier for themselves if they can get Jordan Scarlett and LaMical Perine going on the ground. If Florida can get those guys going, they should be able to put together some long, punishing drives. And if Florida puts together enough long, punishing drives, the Vols will wear down and melt in the midday September heat.

Tennessee wins if… they can score touchdowns in the red zone. Tennessee figures to pick up some yards against Florida throughout the course of the game, but it will be the moments when the field shrinks down in the confines of the red zone that will ultimately determine the Vols’ fate. Florida’s bend-but-don’t-break defense allowed touchdowns on just 45% of opponents’ drives inside the 20 last year, which doesn’t exactly make the task easier, but leaving points on the field in your rival’s backyard isn’t a preferred route to victory. And that goes double for a Tennessee offense with this many question marks.

Overview: Tennessee is in a weird position this year. Nobody’s mistaking them for a national championship contender, but after yet another season in which his Vols failed to reach expectations, the media appears to have lost interest in them and directed their preseason attention shower elsewhere (Athens, Georgia, to be exact, but that’s a story for another day). And that’s dangerous. In addition to that, Butch Jones may just be one more “failed to reach expectations” season away from losing his job.

So the Vols may not be as good from a personnel standpoint as they were last year, but they’re every bit as dangerous, and maybe more so without the lofty expectations. Don’t sleep on Dormady, John Kelly or this defense. Don’t be surprised if this is the year they finally break through and win ten games. Above all, don’t kid yourselves: winning this game is not going to be easy.

As for what will happen? I see shades of 2015; an intense, average paced scoring battle in which Feleipe Franks/Malik Zaire will truly struggle for most of the game. Whoever gets the nod will make some good decisions, he’ll make some bad decisions, and he’ll leave a lot to be desired. But the heroes of the game will be the Florida defense, which will keep the Gators in the game throughout the afternoon and hold Dormady out of the end zone. And as twilight falls on the Swamp, Franks/Zaire will lift the Gators to victory with a touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland in the final seconds.

Projection: Florida 30, Tennessee 23

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