3 matchups that will define Florida vs. Tennessee
Florida welcomes rival Tennessee to The Swamp Saturday night (7 p.m., ESPN) in a battle of 2-1 SEC East programs. Tennessee has lost 15 of the past 16 games between the rivals, a stretch of futility unmatched in series history, which dates to 1916. The Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003, when Phil Fulmer still roamed the sidelines for Tennessee. Recognizing this, Vegas has pegged the Gators a 20-point favorite.
Despite the lopsided recent history and the big point spread, this is a massive game for both teams.
Tennessee is trying to get its rivalry game performances off to a good start under new head coach Josh Heupel. The first-year head coach brought his version of the Oklahoma spread offense to Knoxville and the Vols have been entertaining thus far in 2021, scoring plenty of points, despite losing their only game against a quality opponent. After plodding through the star-crossed Jeremy Pruitt era, entertaining is a good start, but pushing or upsetting Florida would be a season-defining moment.
Meanwhile Florida, coming off a hard-fought loss to Alabama, will need to turn the page quickly after hearing all week about how admirably they played against the defending national champion Crimson Tide. If Florida wants the rematch with the Crimson Tide the players and coaches discussed following Saturday’s game, they need to take care of business at home Saturday night and understand that the Alabama loss leaves zero margin for error the rest of the way in SEC play.
Here are 3 matchups that will define the 51st edition of the Florida-Tennessee game.
The prolific Florida run game vs. an outstanding Tennessee run defense
The Gators will face a stiff test in an improved Tennessee defense led by new defensive coordinator Tim Banks and a violent, physical defensive front led by super senior Matthew Butler inside. The Vols rank No. 1 in the SEC in rushing defense and No. 3 in yards allowed per attempt (1.9) through the season’s first 3 games. Of course, the Vols haven’t faced a ground game as versatile as Florida’s, which can play power football or stretch you outside with the option and do just about anything in between. The Vols have to be disciplined defensively to slow Florida down, per Heupel.
“I think they do a good job of spacing people out,” Heupel told the media Monday. “The quarterback is a huge part of their run game too. The threat of it, and when he has the ball in his hands, he runs like a runner. He’s able to make the first guy miss and able to run through a tackle, too.”
Anthony Richardson practiced Monday and received plenty of repetitions, so the Gators should be in a position to use both the dynamic Richardson and starter Emory Jones, who is coming off his best career game in the loss to Alabama. While Florida features 4 runners with over 100 yards rushing on the season, 2 are quarterbacks. What the Vols do to spy Jones and Richardson will be interesting — especially because Tennessee’s defensive backs have struggled to win 1-on-1s. If you spy Richardson or Jones — and Tennessee likely has to — Florida will have opportunities in the passing game. Can Jones and Richardson make the Vols pay?
Meanwhile, it’s another chance for the Florida offensive line to show it is one of the more pleasant surprises in the SEC this season. A question mark as the Gators exited fall camp, the Gators bullied Alabama last week for 245 yards rushing, often dominating the line of scrimmage, as on this touchdown run by Malik Davis.
Malik Davis CAN’T BE STOPPED!!
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
Florida’s rushing total and average yards per carry (5.8) was the largest for a Tide opponent since the 2014 Ohio State College Football Playoff semifinal, and the Gators average 7.7 yards per carry against all opponents on the young season.
Something has to give Saturday night– and the answer to the question “What gives?” likely decides this football game.
Will the Florida defense build off the last 3 quarters of the Alabama game and continue to limit big plays?
Longtime Gators scribe Bob Redman opined that Florida’s final 3 quarters against Alabama, where it held the Crimson Tide to 10 points and forced multiple 3-and-outs, was the best Todd Grantham’s defense has played since the 2019 campaign. I think that’s a good take, though there is still room for improvement, especially on 3rd down, where Alabama won the game by converting multiple 3rd-and-mediums and 3rd-and-shorts (7-13 on the day) to win by 2 points.
Florida needs to use this game as a building block, not a positive blip. For example, Florida held Alabama to 91 yards rushing Saturday after being manhandled a bit up front by the likes of USF a week earlier. Which Gators defense is the real deal?
There’s a chance we find out quickly Saturday.
Tennessee’s run game has been slowed a bit early in the season as the Vols have dealt with significant injuries up front. Cooper Mays has missed 2 games and running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small have each missed action. Tennessee does expect a full cupboard Saturday night and will need to run the ball some to keep the Florida pass rush from selling out to get after Joe Milton or Hendon Hooker.
Heupel has been mum so far about who will start at quarterback — but whether Milton or Hooker gets the nod– the Gators’ secondary will need to make tackles in space and keep things in front the way they mostly did against Alabama. If the Gators make Tennessee consistently drive the length of the field to score and don’t surrender the big play, they’ll be in good shape.
Which team’s 2-headed quarterback duo limits turnovers and makes the most big plays?
Florida fans should feel encouraged by Jones’ performance against Alabama. Jones accounted for nearly 300 yards with his arm and legs and led Florida on scoring drives of 10, 11 and 12 plays, including a 99-yard drive in the third quarter that was one of the more impressive drives we’ve seen against a Nick Saban team in the past decade.
That said, Jones has tossed 5 interceptions on the young season, the most of any SEC starting quarterback, and he made miserable reads on at least 3 of those interceptions. Florida can’t afford to give Tennessee short fields — and confidence — by committing turnovers. That starts with Jones but extends to Richardson, who has not turned the ball over this season but who has been criticized by Dan Mullen for missing reads repeatedly. Eventually, even a player with the athleticism of Richardson will be punished for a misread.
Of course, with the Gators’ 2-headed quarterback monster, you take the good with the bad, and there’s been so much good. The Gators rank No. 2 nationally in rushing offense, No. 3 in yards per rush attempt, and No. 1 in success rate on the ground this season. Plus, Jones (4th) and Richardson (1st) are both in the top 5 on quarterback-run success rate. There’s not much they can’t do on the ground, and both are physical runners who are tough to bring down on first contact.
Emory Jones caps off a 99-YARD DRIVE for the Gators 🔥
— Bleacher Report CFB (@BR_CFB) September 18, 2021
At Tennessee, turnovers have been less of an issue (only 1 interception by either Joe Milton III or Hendon Hooker — Milton does have a fumble). What has been an issue at times is finding explosive plays and limiting sacks by not holding the football too long.
Even against Bowling Green, the Vols struggled to keep Milton’s pocket clean, resulting in too much pressure and often, Milton holding the ball too long.
Joe Milton (Tennessee) advanced stat line
39.13% success rate
13.04% explosive pass rate
13.04% PBU/INT rate
11.54% sack rate
6.09 yards per attempt
Rough first start for the Michigan transfer.
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) September 3, 2021
Heupel may start Hendon Hooker, who is a bit more mobile, for that reason Saturday night. Hooker is averaging over 6 yards per carry and seems more decisive in running when things break down. He’s also a bit more shifty in the open field, which could yield dividends against a Gators team that has struggled to tackle cleanly. Neither is particularly accurate, but Hooker is a capable thrower, as evidenced by the video below.
Hooker won the job at Virginia Tech last season because he could extend plays with his legs, and Saturday, against Florida’s ferocious pass rush, his ability to do that might make him the better bet as the Vols try to win in Gainesville for the first time in almost 20 years.