Gators, Vols Prepare for Heated Showdown
By Matt Smith
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Florida has won seven straight games over Tennessee, but this appears to be the most talented Volunteer team in recent history.
The Third Saturday in September is back. It’s not quite where it was in the ‘90s, when it was the game in the SEC, but Florida-Tennessee is a must-see contest for the first in over half a decade (not counting the 2009 Kiffin-Meyer circus). Both teams are ranked, both teams are 2-0, and both teams feel as if they have what it takes to contend for the SEC East title. Let’s look at five key questions heading into Saturday night’s showdown on Rocky Top.
(18) Florida at (23) Tennessee
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge)
1. Can Tyler Bray win a big game?
It seems like Bray, a junior, has been around awhile, but he’s never played a complete game against Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina. In his lone start against Florida, he lost top target Justin Hunter to a torn ACL in the first quarter. He’s yet to beat an SEC team which finished the season with a winning record, but gets a golden opportunity Saturday night against the Gators. With a reduced spotlight on him in the season opener against N.C. State, Bray was brilliant, throwing for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 35-21 Volunteers win.
It’s unfair to say Bray has struggled in big games, because frankly, he hasn’t really played in one – at least not of the magnitude of Saturday’s clash of the former SEC East titans. He’ll have a healthy Hunter, a versatile weapon in Cordarrelle Patterson, and a much improved running game. Florida’s defense, however, may be the best that Bray has faced. The Gators shut down Texas A&M’s spread attack last week, holding the Aggies scoreless in the second half. It’ll be strength on strength when Tennessee has the football.
2. Did Jeff Driskel turn the corner against Texas A&M?
Only time will tell, but the resolve the sophomore showed in rallying Florida from a 17-7 deficit in a hostile atmosphere went a long way to him eventually becoming a successful SEC quarterback. He misfired on only three of his 16 throws in College Station. Driskel displayed his toughness in leading the Gators to victory on the road despite being sacked eight times.
While Driskel must learn quickly that throwing the ball away isn’t always a bad thing, there were protection issues last week. Volunteers defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri loves to bring pressure and will find similar ways to get to the young quarterback. Driskel is a running threat, but Tennessee’s linebackers are among the best in the league, even if the starter on the strong side, Herman Lathers, is unable to play. Florida won’t run the ball as well as they did against the Aggies, so avoiding sacks is a must despite Driskel’s penchant for scrambling.
3. How will Florida’s defensive injuries impact the game?
Outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins will miss the game with a thumb injury, while starting cornerback Cody Riggs also won’t be able to play with a broken foot. To add further salt to the wounds, defensive end Ronald Powell suffered a setback last weekend in his recovery from a torn ACL and is now likely shelved for the remainder of the season. Florida has arguably the best secondary in the SEC, but Riggs, who can play both corner and safety, is a key loss.
The Gators defense was brilliant in the second half last week. However, facing a first-time starting quarterback is a far less arduous task than going against Bray and what is perhaps the best wide receiving duo outside of Los Angeles, in Hunter and Patterson. Middle linebacker Jon Bostic is the emotional leader of the defense, but Jenkins is its most talented player. There’s talent behind him in sophomore Michael Taylor and freshman Antonio Morrison, but none with the experience of the fourth-year junior.
4. Who wins the rushing battle?
It’s no secret that this game has historically been decided by which team has the most success on the ground. Florida has run for more yards in the past seven meetings, winning all seven. Since Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990, 21 of 22 meetings between the two teams have been won by the team with the most rushing yards. Only in 2002 did that not hold true, as Tennessee outgained Florida on the ground 99-94, but lost the game, 30-13, on a rainy day in Knoxville.
The Vols have more depth in the backfield, but do not have a player as talented as Florida’s Mike Gillislee. He’s backed up the lofty goals he announced for himself at SEC Media Days (1,500 yards, 24 touchdowns) by rushing for 231 yards in two games and finding the end zone four times, including a 12-yard scamper for the go-ahead touchdown in which he showed great patience and ability to change direction. Tennessee wants to spread the wealth more, as Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young all have at least 10 carries thus far.
The slight edge here goes to the Gators.
5. How much of an effect will Neyland Stadium have?
What was at one time arguably the loudest venue in college football has lost much of its reputation thanks to a lack of sellouts and poor on-field performance by the home team. That said, with a fully closed upper deck, when Neyland Stadium is loud, it’s really loud. With a capacity of over 100,000 in a double-decked bowl, Neyland holds noise as well as any stadium in the sport. The game was officially declared a sellout earlier this week after tickets returned by Florida were sold.
This is the biggest game in Knoxville in six years. There is a buzz again on Rocky Top. Florida may have helped add to the intensity by matching Tennessee’s 2-0 start with its comeback win a week ago. It’ll feel like the old Neyland Stadium again. Vols fans have been waiting for a game of this magnitude, and they finally have it.
Bonus: Who wins?
Don’t screw with a streak. Tennessee has more weapons and more to play for, but there’s a severe mental hump the Volunteers have to get over to finally beat Florida. What seemed like a daunting two-game road trip for the Gators will now show its benefits, as the Gators appeared much more composed than they ever were in Will Muschamp’s first season. Florida won’t be great, but for the second week in a row it will be just good enough to outlast a stern road test and send expectations soaring for the remainder of the season. Florida 27, Tennessee 23.