Florida squares off with Tennessee in the first really big game of the year for the Gators. The preliminaries against directional schools are over so with all due respect to Jeff Bower and George O’Leary, this week is “big boy” football. This is two big time programs squaring off in a big time setting on national television.
The Vols and the Gators have split the last eight games with both teams winning their last home game in this series. For a while this series became a trip to Bizarro World beginning with the Vols winning in Gainesville in Steve Spurrier’s last regular season game as a Gator coach. It became a series that was bit of home field “disadvantage” until Bobby Moreau (officiating, two years ago) and Urban Meyer (coaching, last year) restored some order to the home parks. Tennessee is still searching for home dominance having lost five of twelve in Neyland Stadium while the Gators are looking for the first big road win under Urban Meyer.
I think the Vols did a nice job in the opener against California, but in breaking it down, all Tennessee has really done is win two home games against teams from out West. This game will provide proof if the Vols are truly back, while Florida can show it headed to a special season under Meyer.
KEY OFFENSIVE STATISTICS: Both quarterbacks have been very good on third down passing. The Gators check in completing 13 out of 18 on third down while the Vols are 9-12 on third passing this season. That is 81 percent for the Gators and 75 percent for the Volunteers.
This game always comes down to three key areas of football. Meyer often says five or six plays decide a big SEC game and he is right. Sometimes it happens in one of the following areas. First area is turnovers. The Gators are coming off there worst turnover game since Mississippi State last year while a late interception almost cost Tennessee a flawless win over Air Force. Looking at history, the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game. There have been key turnovers in this series so every possession counts. Special teams is the second key area. We have seen missed field goals, blocked field goals and big plays in the special teams area. Both teams have guys capable of making big plays and the kickers, Chris Hetland and James Wilhoit, have each made big kicks in this game. The final key area is linked to turnovers and special teams. It’s field position, where each offense begins its drive. It is hard to drive the ball 70-80 yards consistently against good SEC defenses and the coordinators on both teams would love to attack the offenses when they are backed up.
KEY DEFENSIVE STATISTICS: Florida is giving up just 2.86 yards per carry on the season while the Volunteers are giving up 4.66 yards per carry. The key down is first down where UF is surrendering just 2.53 per carry and the Vols are giving up 5.76 yards on first down rushing attempts. The Gators have given up just two total rushing yards in the second quarter of the first two games.
When you assess the game you look at those key areas but to look deeper you have to look at what I call football “X” factors. The first is running the football and which team can establish some balance on offense. The match-up may come down to two guys who have been banged up already this season: Arian Foster and DeShawn Wynn. The back who has the most consistent game will help lead his team to victory. The second match-up will be the play of Erik Ainge versus Chris Leak. Ainge leads the country in passing efficiency and things have gone surprisingly smooth for him early in the season. Leak looks as polished and in control of the offense as I have seen him in four years. For Chris there is a sense of some unfinished business in Knoxville. He felt he should have a victory on Rocky Top and is looking to go back and take care of what was left there in 2004. The final match-up is which offensive line will hold up under the pressure better on Saturday night. The Gator offensive line has been ahead of schedule in the first two weeks but this will be their first true test. The Volunteers have a new offensive line coach (Greg Adkins) and have not allowed a sack this season.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 14 games. It has been 14 games since a running back went for 100 yards on Tennessee’s defense.
HOW CAN THE GATORS WIN IN KNOXVILLE?: To win on the road you must have senior leadership and the Gators have veterans at all the key positions. Offensively, with Leak and Baker, the Gators have two guys who were left with a bad taste in their mouths from 2004. On the defensive side of the ball, Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas played too many snaps in 2004 and were pushed around at will in the second half on the ground. Throw in the return of Bubba Caldwell and other seniors like Reggie Lewis and Earl Everett and you have a group of guys who know what it takes to prepare for Tennessee. When going to Knoxville always expect the unexpected from rain, to overtime to shoddy officiating it always seems to be one of those things. Having seniors who remain composed in tough times gives you the best chance to win. I think the Gator defense will do a much better job containing Ainge than Tennessee’s defense will in slowing Chris Leak. Both quarterbacks are playing well, both offenses are playing well so give me Brandon Siler and the Gator defense to be the difference. Florida will pull away late to win this game 31-14.
KEEP AN EYE ON: … Dan Mullen the offensive coordinator for Florida. He is starting to get a good feel on what Chris Leak does well and they are working nicely together. Mullen often coached last year just to get the win and seemed in a survival mode in games due to injuries and lack of depth. The Gators averaged just 250 yards per game vs. LSU, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia and I think he wants to show this offense is for real. Expect Mullen to take more shots than he did in big games last year because of his confidence in Leak and depth at receiver. This is the first step to establishing himself as one of the best coordinators in the country.
David Cutcliffe is the offensive coordinator for Tennessee. He has changed the run on first down and second down and throw on third down philosophy that Randy Sanders implored. He has added a quick passing game for Ainge and will try to the fade against press coverage. He will also spread the field more to help his offensive line out should the Volunteers struggle. He likes to throw it more on second down in the series but will still run on first down. Tennessee has run it 70 percent on first down but is a 50-50 team on second down. He is not afraid to throw the quick passes on second and five.
Check out Sun Sports immediately following the game for our Gator Post Game coverage with Urban Meyer’s press conference and player interviews from the locker room. Whit Watson, David Steele and Todd Lewis will join me as we break down the big game on Sun Sports. For more information go to http://www.sunsportstv.com. You can listen to my show on ESPN Radio in Gainesville and Ocala Monday-Friday 7-10 a.m.