The once-great Florida-Tennessee rivalry has lost most of its luster.
The No. 11 Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) and the Volunteers (2-1) are only two days away from kicking off, and yet, most of the conversation on social media and message boards is still about the Gators’ near miss against Alabama last week. There’s been very little trash talk or jabs back and forth between the two fan bases.
The press conferences this week essentially served as an extension of the Alabama postgame press conference.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), the Gators winning 15 of the last 16 meetings in the series has killed the rivalry. UF is heavily favored to extend its dominance on Saturday at 7 inside the Swamp, with the initial point spread in Vegas having them as 20.5-point favorites.
While many in Gator Nation may be already chalking this one up as an easy win, the Gators are not. They’re expecting to see a vastly improved Tennessee team that is hungry to get a signature win for first-year coach Josh Heupel.
“We’ve had a good week of practice so far,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Obviously, a huge challenge, big rivalry game for us against Tennessee. Watching them, a much-improved team this year. You watch the effort they play with. They’re playing really hard defensively. You watch special teams, they’ve got the guys playing hard. A really physical group up front. So, it will be a big challenge for us.”
As Mullen alluded to, the Volunteers’ strength is their defense. They’re only giving up 265 total yards per game, which ranks 17th nationally. They also rank in the top-25 in scoring defense at 15.7 points per game.
They’re yielding just 54.3 rushing yards per game, which is the fifth-fewest in the country. They’re also surrendering just 1.7 yards per carry, the second-best mark in the conference.
While it’s true that they’ve only played Bowling Green, Pittsburgh and Tennessee Tech, they should still provide another test as to just how much improvement the Gators have made on the offensive line.
Defensive back Theo Jackson is their best defensive player. He leads the team with 25 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and five pass breakups. He can play every position in the secondary, though he will start at nickelback.
Defensive end Tyler Baron (four tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks) and linebacker Jeremy Banks (13 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, one sack) are also worth keeping an eye on.
“It’s a great opportunity, a great team,” Gators center Kingsley Eguakun said. “We’re in the SEC, so every week is going to be a great game. I think those guys play really hard, and I think we play really hard. So, we’re going to come out and be victorious.”
Offensively, Tennessee is a decent running team, as they rank fifth in the conference with 223 yards per game. Tiyon Evans is their leading rusher with 31 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He’s the power back, while Jabari Small (30 carries, 135 yards, two touchdowns) is more of an all-purpose back.
They’ve got some speedy receivers like Velus Jones and Jimmy Calloway, but getting them the ball has proved difficult thanks to atrocious quarterback and offensive line play.
Their offensive line has given up nine sacks against three subpar opponents. Brenton Cox, Zachary Carter, Jeremiah Moon and Khris Bogle should be able to live in the backfield.
The Gators will have to prepare for two quarterbacks. Michigan transfer Joe Milton started the first two games and completed just 18 of 35 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown. However, he suffered a leg injury in the loss to Pittsburgh and missed the Tennessee Tech game last week. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker replaced him and has completed 32 of 46 passes for 387 yards and five touchdowns over the last 1 ½ games. He’s also rushed for 113 yards and a score.
As of the time this article was published, Heupel hadn’t disclosed whether Milton will be available this week or if he’ll be the starter if he is healthy.
Mullen said that no matter which one of them starts, they will challenge his defense.
“They both have experience now and have played in games,” he said. “Both have strong arms, can push the ball down the field. I know they love to push the ball vertically down the field. They are good runners when they have the quarterback runs called or the zone-read calls when they pull it.
“But, to me, the thing that makes them dangerous, what I see, is their ability to extend plays. Their ability when, all of a sudden, the play breaks down a little bit, their ability to go create something special beyond that and make something happen out there on the field and the explosiveness that they’ve been able to do in getting outside of the offense and creating on their own.”
Another thing that could give the Gators trouble in this game is the Volunteers’ tempo. Heupel likes to turn the game into a track meet, and they’re averaging nearly 78 snaps per game so far.
“It’s just something different,” Mullen said. “You’ve got to practice. It’s hard sometimes to practice the tempo at which they’re going to. So, what we can’t do is be shocked by the speed of that once the game starts of how fast they’re going to snap the ball, how fast they’re going to get up there and run plays and how fast we have to get the call, get lined up and be ready to go execute.”
UF’s defense has struggled to get lined up correctly against up-tempo offenses at times over the past two seasons, so the Volunteers could put a scare into the Gators if they’re able to use their tempo to jump out to an early lead.
“I feel like they go fast, and they like to throw the ball deep a lot,” UF cornerback Kaiir Elam said. “So, I feel like I mentally need to be prepared on that and just making sure we open-field tackle. I feel like that’s another thing we can improve on from last weekend, just executing Coach [Todd] Grantham’s play call. I expect to dominate that game.”
While this matchup might not have the hype surrounding it that it did in the 1990s and early-2000s, it’s still an important game for Florida. They need to avoid a post-Alabama letdown and return to their winning ways. They’ll likely need to win seven conference games in a row to get a rematch with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, and that journey starts with Tennessee.
Mullen is expecting Gator Nation to do their part by filling the Swamp and creating a similar environment as they did against Alabama.
“We need to have that atmosphere,” he said. “That’s what makes the Swamp the Swamp. That’s what gives us homefield advantage. That’s what motivates our players. I’m looking forward to it.
“[Saturday] night in the Swamp, Florida-Tennessee, huge rivalry game, we expect a great atmosphere and encourage all the Gator fans to get back out there, continue supporting the team and give us that homefield advantage.”