|TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (2017: 4-8, 0-8 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2017 offense||2017 defense|
|Jeremy Pruitt||4 offense, 7 defense||291 YPG/19.1 PPG||413 YPG/29.1 PPG|
|1st year||48%, 53% of stat production||125th/119th in FBS||81st/84th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 27, Tennessee 20
Last meeting: Florida 26, Tennessee 20 (2017)
Synopsis: To an ever so slightly lesser degree than Kentucky, Florida has absolutely owned Tennessee on the gridiron over the last few decades. Yes, there was 2001, and yes, there was 2016. However: Florida has not only won 12 of the last 13 over Tennessee, which feels like a pretty roundabout way to keep the Gators’ 11 game winning streak from 2005-2015 at the forefront of Tennessee fans’ minds, but Florida has actually won 25 of the last 32 meetings dating back to 1971, before there were divisions and these two teams played every year. Both programs have struggled over the past several years, but it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of issues either team has; Florida just about always beats Tennessee. Twice over the last five years, the Gators used backup quarterbacks to beat the Vols, and Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain- who are objectively two of the worst coaches in Gator history when you factor in the increased expectations that coaches in the 1940’s didn’t have- went a combined 6-1 against them. Now, Tennessee, fresh off a perfect 0-8 conference record last year, has even more rebuilding to do than Florida, both on and off the field. That comes with an obvious caveat: anybody familiar with the current state of this Gator program knows better than to chalk this up as a win in July, particularly on the road, where things that shouldn’t happen happen quite regularly. But this is Florida’s game to lose.
Offensive breakdown: Early indications for the Vols’ 2018 offense aren’t great. What little bit of offensive firepower there was last year was provided by John Kelly, and he’s now playing on Sundays. Then again, when you finish the preceding season 125th out of 130 teams in yards per game and 119th in points per game, there’s really nowhere to go but up.
The quarterback job appears to be Jarrett Guarantano’s to lose. Guarantano was thrown into the fire multiple times last year and didn’t really do a bad job, completing 86 of 139 passes in the limited action he saw. He’ll have more responsibilities this year, though, and how he responds to that isn’t something that’s easily predictable when his only sample size was an overly conservative approach on a 4-8 team. If he grows and learns, Tennessee could be OK here.
The running game will be a problem, though, as alluded to earlier. There’s potential- Ty Chandler is fast, and Madre London has played big time college football before (870 yards in three years at Michigan State)- but that likely won’t equate to replacing all of Kelly’s production, even with two guys trying to replace one by committee.
That said, it might if the offensive line takes the step forward Tennessee coaches seem to think it will (editor’s note: OK, good luck with that). Trey Smith is going to be an NFL tackle someday, but one man does not form an offensive line. And as good as Smith is, he was still a starter on the Tennessee offensive line unit that surrendered 35 sacks last year, which earned the Vols a 113th place finish in that category. Perhaps the promising but raw Drew Richmond can help with that.
Tennessee’s receiving corps is a wild card. The Vols do return Marquez Callaway (406 receiving yards last year) and Brandon Johnson (482), along with tight end Austin Pope so there’s talent and at least somewhat proven production at the other end of the aerial equation. And Jauan Jennings is back from both being dismissed and injured. If Guarantano can adjust well to life as the full time starter and makes good decisions, the Vols can have one of those offenses that sneaks out of nowhere and strikes for a lot of big plays.
Offensive Grade: D+. The offense cannot possibly be worse than it was last year unless it’s literally dead last in the nation in every statistical category. But until Guarantano proves his worth and Tennessee finds a legitimate replacement for Kelly, it’s not wise to bet on them being much better.
Defensive breakdown: Tennessee’s defense will be priority #1 for new defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, fresh off of guiding Georgia’s linebackers into a national championship game appearance. Sherrer will implement the 3-4 into the Vols’ program, and has a history of turning the pieces he’s been given into a fierce unit. The question is whether he has the pieces to do it in his first year.
He certainly has one such piece up front. 310 lb mammoth of a man Shy Tuttle returns to the interior for his senior year, and that’s good news for a run defense that really needs some. But Tuttle is going need help. Otherwise, opponents will do what they did last year, and that’s run the ball away from Tuttle and pick up yards in chunks on the ground. And without anybody really announcing their presence so far this offseason, the Vols are running out of time to find them.
Sherrer should feel a little better about the middle level of his defense. Linebacker Daniel Bituli was a tackling machine last year, and with fellow linebackers Darrell Taylor and Quart’e Sapp back to help out, plus defensive end Jonathan Kongbo moving to linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme, there’s hope to believe Tennessee can actually have a respectable run defense in 2018… that is, if Sherrer and Pruitt can find another starting interior lineman. But with an athletic pair of linebackers like Taylor and Bituli, the Vols can call it good enough and focus their attention on rebuilding their secondary.
Speaking of which: it’s a mess. Nobody really needed to throw on the Vols last year, which means that they actually had decent stats against the pass, but now both starting corners plus safety (Birdie Boy) Rashaan Gaulden are gone. Tennessee should be in good shape with Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy returning to lock down the two safety spots, but that only helps so much if they can’t find a pair of adequate cover corners- and fast.
Defensive grade: C-. I’m putting a lot of stock into Pruitt and Sherrer’s ability to mold this defense into something respectable and possibly even good. But until and unless the Vols shore up that defensive line, opponents will own the trenches and dominate the game from the inside out.
Key matchup: Tennessee run defense vs. Florida run game. It’s as simple as this: if Tennessee cannot stop the Gators’ ground attack, they will lose. Florida isn’t exactly made up of invincible armor, but there is no weakness on the entire Gator team- no, not even the QB position- that matches the severity of the Vols’ issues on the defensive line.
Florida key to victory: Run the ball down the Vols’ throats and see if they can make Tennessee melt on its home field. The Gators are probably going to be able to survive the first month of the season without dynamic QB play, so while it’s probably a good idea to get Kyle Trask, Emory Jones or Feleipe Franks some real action on Rocky Top, they can ultimately win without a superhuman ballgame from its signal caller- so long as that ballgame doesn’t include a myriad of mistakes. Or, you know, the same four plays Doug Nussmeier called on loop in the second half of the game in 2016.
Tennessee key to victory: The Vols don’t really have an X’s and O’s advantage over Florida anywhere on the field, but they might be able to catch the Gators off guard with some tricky play calling. If the Florida defense is on its heels all day, and Tennessee can feed Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson the ball in space, the Vols have a chance.
Fun fact: Even with the stellar season John Kelly put together last year, Tennessee found itself out rushed by more than a 2:1 ratio. The Vols surrendered 3,015 yards on the ground and countered with just 1,409.
Summary: Glad that I’m not on ole’ Rocky Top, where everything goes downhill. Because it may not be possible to be lower as a program than Tennessee was when it backed off of its Greg Schiano hire. Given the horrendous circumstances they placed themselves in, the Vols did make the best head coaching hire they seemingly could have. So that’s good.
But that still doesn’t account for all the fixes in the complete and thorough facelift this Tennessee program must undergo if it wants to win ten games, much less a trip to the SEC Championship. Given its schedule and personnel, it’s very possible that Tennessee won’t make a bowl game for the second straight year, a prospect that goes from a possibility to a probability if the Vols lose to West Virginia in its opener and then again to Florida to start 2-2 road trips to Georgia, Auburn, Vanderbilt and South Carolina lurking in addition to hosting Kentucky, Missouri and Alabama teams that beat them last year. Add that onto the Vols’ well documented misery against Florida, and it’s an understatement to say they’ll be desperate to pull off a win against the Gators at home.
Desperation, though, only goes so far. For all its issues, and there are many, Florida is the far superior team from both a talent and an experience standpoint. Plus, the Gators obviously need this win as well if they want any chance of giving Georgia a real race for the SEC East crown. So expect an all time eyesore of an event that makes the first three quarters of last year’s game look like a beauty pageant- with Florida, the better team at every position on the field, emerging victorious after three and a half hours’ worth of the ugliest football you’ve ever seen. Make it 13 of the last 14 and 26 out of the last 33 for the Gators as Jordan Scarlett plows in for the winning touchdown in the final minute.
Projection: Florida 10, Tennessee 3
UPDATE: I wrote this before it was announced, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Tennessee chose this game to honor their 1998 national championship team, which beat Florida 20-17 in overtime. So, yeah, I’d say that adds a little more motivation for Florida.