KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Florida Gators (2-1, 1-1 SEC) and Tennessee Volunteers (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will square off at high noon on Tuesday in Neyland Stadium. The Volunteer fans have responded to Butch Jones and his “brick by brick” mantra, selling out Neyland for the game and the entire Vol nation comes into this game with a their collective chests puffed out and a head full of confidence.
Neither Tennessee nor Florida can win the SEC East this week. The East is wild and will likely come down to the last week of the conference schedule but the loser of this game is done. Not mathematically, but with LSU, Missouri and Georgia coming up for the Gators and Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina coming up for the Vols, this is a must win game for both teams.
So who has the advantage heading into the game this week?
When Florida runs:
The Gators will use their two-headed running back duo to attack a Tennessee defense that is giving up a league worst 169 rushing yards per game. Even after facing the No. 1 rushing defense in the country in Alabama, Florida is still averaging 201 rushing
yards per game.
Tennessee’s defensive line is one of their biggest weaknesses and Florida’s offensive line has surprisingly been one of their most stout units this season. While the defensive line has not been great, the linebackers have been able to clean up their mess. Despite having the worst rushing defense in the SEC, Tennessee has only allowed 17 rushing plays of more than 10 yards. That’s
better than Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina.
This means Florida will need to pound the football. Take their 5-6 yard runs and keep smashing ahead.
When Tennessee runs:
Freshman Jalen Hurd is only a freshman by classification. Hurd continues to become a bigger part of the Tennessee offense each week and is quickly becoming their best offensive player. Hurd is 10th in the SEC with 82 rushing yards per game (better than Alabama’s Derek Henry).
Tennessee is just 13th in the conference with a 126.75 rushing yard per game average this season but they have faced three top-25 rushing defenses nationally already this season and even Arkansas State (Tennessee’s week two opponent) is ranked No. 52 in the country.
Tennessee faces another test this week as the Gators bring their sixth-ranked (SEC) defense into Knoxville. However, the Vols have faced the No. 4, No. 17 and No. 25 rushing defenses in the country already this season — all ranked higher than Florida.
When Florida throws:
The Gators are attempting 39.7 passes per-game this season. Only Tennessee (41.5) and Texas A&M (42.6) are attempting more passes a game than the Gators. Florida’s 56.3-completion percentage and 6.6 yards-per-attempt are both 12th in the conference.
The offensive line is doing a magnificent job of giving Jeff Driskel time in the pocket to throw. Their two sacks allowed trail just Alabama for least in the SEC. Tennessee is averaging just two sacks per game this season and are in the middle of the pack in the SEC with five interceptions. Still, until I see improved play from Jeff Driskel, I have a hard time giving the Gators the advantage in the passing game with him playing quarterback.
When Tennessee throws:
I don’t get the hype surrounding Justin Worley. Isn’t this the same guy who was 10-23 with two interceptions against the Gators last season? Worley is sixth in the SEC in yards-per-game (246.3) and touchdowns (9). He leads the league in passing attempts (38.8) but is just eighth in the SEC, completing 60% of those attempts.
Why is there so much hype around him?
Still, Florida has surrendered 818 passing yards their last two times out. The Gators are the second worst passing defense in the SEC and both coaches and players have cited communication breakdowns as the reason the Gators have given up seven passing plays of 30 or more yards. How do you fix that? You change players, of course. I don’t know how mixing up the pieces in the secondary will help with communication breakdowns, even Jabari Gorman admitted this week that rotating players hinders being able to develop communication with the guy next to you.
I’m not drinking the Worley Kool-Aid but, just like with Driskel, I’m not picking the Gators passing defense until they show me than can stop someone. Or something. Really anything. Just stop anything.
The Gators lead the nation in punting with a 50.38 average.
So there’s that.
Seriously though, the reemergence of Kyle Christy is huge for the Gators. Despite a new offense, the Gators continue to play with a razor thin margin of error and when you play like that having Christy as a weapon that can change field position in an instant is a huge help. Who’s kicking field goals though? Who knows. Probably Frankie Velez.
Brandon James made a career out of playing against Tennessee. The vertically challenged running back was devastating to Vols fans and many were happy to see him finally run out of eligibility at Florida. The Gators need to get a spark from Andre Debose or Valdez Showers in the return game this week. This nine game winning streak that the Gators are enjoying is fueled in big part due to the Gators being able to make things happen on special teams.
Tennessee has the fourth best kick cover team in the SEC (19.6 yards-per-return) while the Gators have just the 10th kick cover team (23.27 per-return).
Tennessee is actually ranked higher than Florida in kicking coverage, punting coverage and kick return average but I’m still going with the Gators to have the advantage here. Punter’s are people too and Kyle Christy is the best in the country.
The Gators got a week off after Lane Kiffin ran circles around them in Tuscaloosa. Florida is saying all the right things publically this week and they’re still backing each other.
Despite coming off of back-to-back losses, the Volunteers are brimming with confidence thanks to a culture change that Butch Jones has brought to Knoxville. His brick by brick motto is catching on and can be seen on shirts all over campus. The Vol Nation believes in their coach, something you can’t say right now about Gator Nation.