Florida football: 5 questions that will define the Tennessee-Florida game
Florida and Tennessee may no longer command the national spotlight as it did in the days of Spurrier and Fulmer and Wuerffel and Manning, but it’s still an important SEC football game for both teams, albeit for different reasons.
For Tennessee, it’s a huge opportunity to take the sting out of a misery-filled start to Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt. A win over the Gators won’t erase the pain of losing a home game to lowly Georgia State or the 4th quarter collapse against BYU, but it would give the Vols a 1-0 start to SEC play and give a team searching for answers some hope to hang their hat on. Plus, Vols fans would get to laugh at the Gators, which has happened only once in the past 14 seasons. No one expects Tennessee to go to Gainesville and win, which makes them all the more dangerous. The Vols should play fast, loose and with a chip on their shoulders.
For the Gators, it’s a chance to improve to 2-0 in league play and make a statement that Florida very much remains a SEC East contender despite the unfortunate loss of Feleipe Franks for the remainder of the season. It’s one thing for Kyle Trask to pull Florida out of the fire and rally the team for an emotionally charged victory at Kentucky. Consistency is the hard part. Tennessee is a chance for Trask to show he’s ready.
Here are 5 questions that will define the Tennessee-Florida game.
Can Florida rev up the pressure and force Jarrett Guarantano into some bad decisions?
Florida has registered a nation-leading 16 sacks through 3 games. The Gators are 3rd-nationally in producing tackles for loss and negative plays.
No team in America was worse at preventing negative plays than Tennessee a season ago.
Sounds like a bad matchup, right?
Tennessee’s offensive line looks improved, but the Gators will be their first test against Power 5 opposition.
The biggest concerns for Tennessee early in the season have come on the right side of the line, where Jon Greenard, perhaps Florida’s most lethal pass rusher, likes to operate.
The Vols are still trying to figure out who the permanent answer is at right tackle. Is it Darnell Wright, or will Jim Chaney use him inside, as he did for much of the Chattanooga game? Will it be Marcus Tatum, who isn’t great, but appears to have a leg up on K’Rojhn Calbert, a space-eater who played right tackle in run packages in the first 3 games of the season? Will they continue to mix and match?
Whatever Tennessee decides to do, Florida will look to pressure Guarantano. The junior spent much of last season running for his life but made quality decisions in spite of a lack of protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Guarantano was the best QB in the SEC last year on 3rd down– an impressive accomplishment given how frequently his team was behind the sticks.
This season, it’s been almost the opposite.
Tennessee’s offensive line has done a quality job opening up the run game for Ty Chandler and Eric Gray (more below), but Guarantano has failed to capitalize consistently on the balance Jim Chaney’s brought to Knoxville.
Instead, Guarantano has made baffling choices in key moments, like this throw against BYU.
That throw is interesting because there’s really no pressure. What happens when Guarantano is sped-up by Florida’s marvelous front?
We saw how much of a difference the mere threat of Florida’s pass rush meant Saturday night at Kentucky. The Gators produced only 1 sack– but they did produce 9 “pressures,” 2 of which led directly to Sawyer Smith interceptions.
Tennessee’s ability to avoid those costly mistakes will be critical Saturday because …
2. Tennessee has a chance to succeed with the power run game
Tennessee will enter The Swamp ranked 59th nationally in rushing offense, but the numbers feel a bit better than that.
The Vols were limited to just 93 yards against Georgia State in the opener, but played from behind in the 2nd half and arguably abandoned the run too early. Tennessee has been much better since, piling up 242 and 195 yards rushing against BYU and Chattanooga, respectively.
Tennessee has been particularly good setting the edge on the left side of their line with Trey Smith and tight ends Austin Pope and Dominick Wood-Anderson mauling people off tackle, something the Gators struggled with at times against Miami and Kentucky.
Pope isn’t much of a pass catching threat though — which should help Todd Grantham, a master study of tendencies, adjust defensively.
It’s an interesting cat and mouse and one that will go a long way in dictating whether Tennessee can stay on schedule on offense and avoid the types of negative plays and down and distance that haunted them last year in the SEC.
In a noon road game that promises to be played in brutal heat, Tennessee will likely stick to the run against Florida in an attempt to shorten the game, keep the crowd subdued and wear down Florida’s thin group of defensive tackles.
3. Florida’s elite wide receiver corps vs. a Tennessee secondary that’s a mess
It isn’t just the 64-yard reception Alontae Taylor gave up against BYU, but it starts there. Pruitt knows it too, which is why Taylor, a sophomore who was supposed to be Tennessee’s best corner in the absence of the suspended Bryce Thompson, started the Chattanooga game on the bench.
Tennessee’s secondary has been a mess in its only 2 games against FBS competition (both losses), inflating their numbers with a 4 interception, 76 yards against performance in last week’s shutout of FCS Chattanooga.
I think Taylor will start vs. the Gators, but the Vols need better play generally from the likes of Warren Burrell, Shawn Shamburger, Kenneth George and senior Nigel Warrior if they are to handle a Florida wide receiver corps that is deep and tests you in a variety of ways.
The most recent weapon for the Gators? How about sophomore Kyle Pitts, who gives Florida a matchup nightmare on the outside — too fast for linebackers, too big for safeties — who can make plays like this one against Kentucky.
4. What will Jeremy Pruitt do to scheme up and confuse Kyle Trask?
A national championship winning defensive coordinator at FSU (2013) and Alabama (2017), Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive acumen is beyond debate.
Pruitt is masterful at disguising coverages and is considered one of the innovators of the pattern-matching zone defense that has found its way from the laboratory that is college football to the precision of the NFL.
Pared to its most basic concept, the idea is to disguise coverages until just before the snap and ultimately play man where numbers support it and provide “zone” help to the mismatch the offensive formation seeks to exploit. It’s an oversimplification of what they do in coverage, in truth, but an adequate one nonetheless, and it’s a style that could pose challenges for a quarterback making his first college start.
Tennessee is also blitzing more this season than last year, and thanks to the return of middle linebacker Daniel Bituli last week, the Vols can afford to be even more aggressive on when they bring pressures.
The jury is out on whether Tennessee will be able to execute Pruitt’s schemes, but the Vols will have a solid plan.
Kyle Trask lacks the mobility of Feleipe Franks or Georgia State’s Dan Ellington, so the Gators’ inexperienced offensive line will need to do a good job in protection to make sure Trask can read progressions and recognize different coverages.
Trask’s limitations in the run game also make it an interesting question to wonder…
5. What role will Emory Jones play Saturday?
Dan Mullen reiterated at his Monday press conference that Trask and highly-touted redshirt freshman Emory Jones will play against Tennessee.
But what does that mean exactly?
Tennessee enters the game ranked 57th nationally in rushing defense and 55th in rushing yards surrendered per attempt. Those numbers are weaker than Tennessee’s numbers last season against the run but should do against the Gators, who have struggled to get much of a push in the run game this season, ranking a gruesome 91st in yards per rushing attempt.
The challenge for Dan Mullen will be to find creative ways to get the run game going. We saw one of those concepts late in the Kentucky game when Josh Hammond took a simple end around 76 yards to the house.
On this play, Florida’s tight ends, Kyle Pitts and Lucas Krull, seal the edge, but winning those blocking battles has been an issue for Florida’s tight ends this season.
A better option might be to incorporate some QB counters and power concepts with Emory Jones, both to exploit any Tennessee run blitzes and try to hit quick holes on the stronger side of Florida’s line (by some distance the left side) with the quarterback.
These packages would be similar to the ones Jones saw action in last season, including against Georgia. They would also likely include some zone reads and RPO concepts, which Jones shined in situationally in fall camp.
Jones has had a package in big moments before — including last year against Georgia, and said this summer he’d be ready for a bigger role.
“I’ll be ready. I played with a package against Georgia and now, it’s just a bigger one,” Jones told the media this summer. “When that time comes that (coach Mullen) gives me the whole offense on larger stages, I’ve already been there. It’s just going to be a bigger package.”
Mullen praised Trask and Jones for their preparation after the Kentucky win. Florida fans — and the Florida run game — are eager to see what the Jones hype is about, and it could matter Saturday afternoon against Tennessee.