Florida football: 5 reasons the Gators will beat the Vols
Florida-Tennessee doesn’t command national attention the way it used to in the days of Spurrier, Wuerffel, Fulmer and Manning.
Heck, these days it doesn’t even get much regional love: the game is a noon kick after years of being written into sharpie in the 3:30 CBS slot or at worst, the 7:00 p.m. ESPN window.
But don’t tell the Gators or the Vols it doesn’t matter.
“It’s going to be crazy. Florida and Tennessee in The Swamp,” senior Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings told the Knoxville media this week. “This whole team’s ready. We’re fired up. Like I said, it’s a road game, going into The Swamp – Florida. How else can you put it? It’s an SEC game. We’re going to go out there and give our all and that’s all that matters.”
Dan Mullen agreed with Jennings.
“Florida-Tennessee is always a big game,” Mullen told the media in Gainesville. “Some of the criticism Tennessee has gotten is unfair. They’ve improved in a lot of areas. We’re at home. I know it’s an early kick, but I’ll tell you what, we need 90,000 in the Gator Nation giving us an advantage making that place, I mean, just crazy for the other team.”
There’s plenty at stake for both teams.
For the Vols, there’s the chance to start fresh, 1-0 in the conference after a rough opening 3-game homestand that saw Tennessee drop heartbreaking games to Georgia State and BYU.
For the Gators, there’s the chance to start a season-long 3-game homestand with a big win. There’s also the opportunity to play a complete football game, something the Gators have yet to do. A win would also mark the program’s 8th consecutive victory — the longest active winning streak in the SEC and the longest winning streak for Florida since 2012.
On film, the matchup appears a bit closer than it does on paper or in Vegas, where Florida opened as a two-touchdown favorite.
The Vols offensive line is much improved and Tennessee has shown the ability to develop the power run game, something that has troubled Florida under Mullen and Grantham. Jeremy Pruitt is also a master at disguising coverages and confusing young quarterbacks, and his defense — buoyed by the return of star linebacker Daniel Bituli — has to be licking its chops at the chance to play against a quarterback in Kyle Trask starting his first game since his freshman year of high school.
Some Tennessee fans aren’t fazed by the Vols’ 1-2 start. They see the film and matchups and are … really optimistic.
If we don’t overlook Georgia State and prepare for them we win. If Bryce Thompson plays vs BYU we win. If we were 3-0 Florida would be freaking out right now. I think they still should be.
— Tennessee Football Guy (@UTFootvol) September 16, 2019
Time to tap the brakes.
There are matchups in this football game that should give Vols fans some hope, but I’m here to dampen that optimism.
Here are 5 reasons the Gators will beat Tennessee.
Florida’s will find ways to pressure Guarantano and force turnovers
Last season, Jarrett Guarantano was one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks when under pressure, which was a good thing to be since he spent most the season running for his life.
Per Stats Solutions, Guarantano’s average time to throw last season was 2.35 seconds, least in the SEC. Despite that, he was 3rd in the SEC on plays where the defense officially earned a pressure, per Pro Football Focus.
Here are the best QBs in the SEC in terms of passer rating vs pressure. pic.twitter.com/P4P0tDuuKa
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 10, 2019
This season, despite better protection, Guarantano has made some bizarre decisions with the football — even on positive plays, like this one:
He’s also regressed when pressured, ranking 13th of SEC starters in rating under pressure thus far, per Pro Football Focus.
That’s not a great formula for success against Florida, which leads the nation in sacks. Jabari Zuniga is questionable for Saturday’s game, but even without him, the Gators should be able to get pressure, especially against the right side of Tennessee’s offensive line, which has had Jim Chaney mixing and matching personnel trying to find a combo that can reliably run block and occasionally pass protect.
Jon Greenard has been mostly unblockable this season and Zachary Carter has had nice moments in relief of Greenard and Zuniga. Plus, the Gators’ starting defensive tackles are better than advertised early, especially senior Adam Shuler, who has built on a strong close to the 2018 campaign by becoming a guy who can consistently occupy enough inside help to give Florida’s speedy edge rushers the chance to win 1-on-1 battles. Against a group of young Tennessee tackles playing their first road game of the season, that’s a good matchup for the Gators.
Expect Florida to get enough pressure on Guarantano to force some negative plays and produce a turnover or two.
Another big day for Van Jefferson and Joshua Hammond against Tenneseee’s corners
Tennessee’s top corner, Bryce Thompson, will play Saturday but the Vols’ second-best corner, Alontae Taylor, was benched last week after allowing this to happen against BYU:
WILSON TO MICAH SIMON. WOW. pic.twitter.com/ZMbcnD2T9D
— Jake Lee (@jacobrexlee) September 8, 2019
In other words, the Vols are a bit uneven at corner right now and that’s bad news when you play the Gators, who boast one of the top wide receiving units in college football.
Van Jefferson has 12 receptions early in his senior season and has a great rapport with Trask, as we saw in Saturday night’s comeback win at Kentucky. Fellow senior Josh Hammond has been a problem for defenses as well, pulling in the pivotal 65-yard catch to set up the winning score against Miami and taking an end-around 76 yards to the house to seal the Gators victory in Lexington. Those 2 alone can cause a defense headaches, but Florida has reliable weapons behind them in fellow seniors Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland. The Gators also have two matchup nightmares in junior Trevon Grimes (6-5, 215, 4.4 speed) and tight end Kyle Pitts (6-6, 240, 4.6).
Even an optimistic Vols fan has to recognize this as a significantly tougher challenge than the Georgia State and BYU units that gave the Vols trouble — and this matchup alone could be the difference Saturday.
Florida will do enough to slow Tennessee’s run game
I wrote earlier this week that I think Tennessee can have some success on the ground with Ty Chandler and the electric freshman Eric Gray. Both have been good this season, collectively running for 386 yards in 3 games at a 5.2 yard per carry clip.
The left side of Tennessee’s line has been especially steady, led by the terrific story that is Trey Smith and a group of excellent run blocking tight ends led by Austin Pope and Dominick Wood-Anderson. I think Tennessee will have some success running the ball, especially because Florida’s safeties can’t cheat much because of the vertical threats Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway pose.
Still, Florida is much better equipped to tackle (pun intended) this mismatch in 2019.
Last season, the Gators were an average run defense, finishing 41st in S & P+ rushing defense and 53rd overall. This season, the Gators rank 30th in the country in rushing defense and 24thin yards per rush allowed at 3.0, over a 1 yard improvement from last season’s 4.1 yards allowed per rush.
As noted, much of this is due to improvement at defensive tackle, as Adam Shuler and Kyree Campbell have done a solid job at the point of attack. But Florida is also better because Ventrell Miller and James Houston IV have upgraded the linebacker corps against the run, giving the Gators outside linebackers better physicality and making life easier on do-everything middle linebacker David Reese, the reigning Bronco Nagurski NCAA Defensive Player of the Week.
Lamical Perine and the Florida run game will finally break loose
It’s been a frustrating start to the season for Florida’s power run game, a staple of Dan Mullen’s spread offense and a big reason Florida improved to a top 20 S&P+ efficiency offense last season for the first time since 2009.
Florida knew entering the season that their continued success in the run game would depend on the success of a rebuilt offensive line. Early returns aren’t encouraging.
The Gators enter Saturday afternoon’s contest ranked 91st nationally in rushing offense and 91st in yards per rushing attempt (3.6).Senior All-SEC running back Lamical Perine has struggled, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry and 40 yards per game on the young campaign. Last week, the Gators had to get very creative in the run game late to get things going, and even with Hammond’s explosive TD run, Florida’s big plays in the run game have been few and far between.
On paper, that problem seems like it will be a tough one to fix this week, given the continued absence of Kadarius Toney and the season-ending injury to Feleipe Franks, who was a constant threat to run.
That said, Tennessee has not been great against the run, entering Saturday’s game ranked 74th in rushing defense and 55th in yards allowed per attempt. Florida also has the ability to show off a new wrinkle in the run game by installing packages for Emory Jones, a faster, more traditional dual-threat quarterback who has impressed in fall camp and who recruiting analysts compared favorably to Jalen Hurts.
I think Mullen will be a bit more creative in the run game this week and that, plus a quality package for Jones, should help jump start a run game that has been holding an offense with an embarrassment of riches on the perimeter back early in the season.
Tennessee tends to find a way to lose the Florida game
Usually when you’ve beaten an opponent 13 out of 14 times, there’s a bit of luck involved. Like “The Heave to Cleve” to beat Tennessee in 2017, or freshman Treon Harris’s 4th-quarter comeback at Neyland Stadium 2014.
There’s also a mental aspect to a lopsided rivalry — call it a “helmet game.” When the going gets tough, one side sees the other side and doesn’t think they’ll win.
With the exception of one Joshua Dobbs half of football, that’s been Tennesee-Florida for a decade and a half.
The Gators make the plays you need to win. Tennessee hopes it will win, then finds different, heartbreaking ways to lose.
In 2006, Tim Tebow knew he would get that extra yard on 4th-and-1 on Florida’s winning drive. Tennessee needed a stop. It couldn’t get it.
Whether it was Tebow or Cam Newton in the game for Florida, no one on Tennessee’s sideline wanted any part of the Gators’ offense in 2007.
In 2009, Lane Kiffin talked a big game, then went to Gainesville and played not to lose. He lost in a game that was never close. Imagine that.
In 2014, up late in the 4th quarter, all Tennessee had to do was cover Matt Jones on a wheel route and they win. The Vols didn’t.
On 4th-and-13 a season later,Will Grier and Antonio Callaway made a play. Tennessee didn’t. You’ll never be able to explain what coverage Tennessee was in on the Hail Mary in 2017.
Last season, it looked like the Vols had made a game-changing play. Then CJ Henderson made a better one.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 23, 2018
You get the idea.
When Tennessee and Florida get together, the program in pale orange puckers. The program in orange and blue makes winning plays.
The same thing will happen Saturday.