First and 10: Florida has owned the rivalry. Tennessee owns the future
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
In the wonderful world of Wuerffel and Manning, and Gaffney and Price and even Dobbs and Grier, I’d like to remind everyone of how far we’ve come in the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in one short season.
Emory Jones won last year’s game for Florida.
And was all but run out of town a week later.
As we prepare this week for yet another edition of what was once the best rivalry in the SEC (ask your dad), the dynamics of change since Florida’s 38-14 win in Gainesville are remarkable.
Tennessee was in its first season under coach Josh Heupel, the initial stage of embracing his Blur Ball offense and desperately trying anything to stop anyone on defense — all with a depleted roster from a coaching change that left the program at an all-time low in the modern era.
Florida was humming along with a coach who had led the program to 3 straight New Year’s 6 bowls, and was 2 weeks removed from a 2-point coulda, woulda, shoulda loss to SEC king Alabama. The 16th victory over Tennessee in the last 17 games was predictably easy.
Then Florida lost 6 of 9 to finish the season. Then Tennessee won 5 games over the next 2 months, and somehow reached 7 wins with a team that probably was set up to win 4.
And now here we are.
Florida fired Dan Mullen, replaced him with Billy Napier and began 2022 with the most impressive win of the early college football season over Utah — but has crashed since (more on that later).
Tennessee has been moving and improving, getting better every week since losing by 24 in Gainesville. Even got a gut-check overtime win at defending ACC champion Pittsburgh 2 weeks ago.
“Our fan base is excited about this game,” Heupel said of the annual Florida rivalry, “and our players should be, too.”
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Napier was showering praise Saturday night on USF, which had lost 23 of its past 24 games to FBS teams — and had a chance to beat Florida in the final minute of a 31-28 loss.
“That South Florida team I watched is a high-quality team,” Napier said.
This is your foundation heading into a flashpoint game in the SEC East Division. Florida has already lost to Kentucky and is on the verge of cementing its place in the bottom half of the division with another loss — in a spectacularly strange fall since the season opener.
Tennessee has spent an entire offseason building toward this game, pointing toward breaking a 5-game losing streak to the Gators and giving Heupel his first signature win. A win here not only underscores where the Vols are headed, it supports the idea — to high school recruits, to transfer portal recruits — that Heupel has the program moving in the right direction.
That for the first time since 2006, Tennessee can play games of significance in the month of November.
2. A Big Orange mirage?
Tennessee is giving up 14.3 points per game, down from 29.1 last season.
The Vols are allowing 23.9 percent of opponent 3rd-down conversions, down from 42.1 last season.
These are the 2 things Heupel stressed over and over in the offseason as the key to Tennessee evolving and growing into an elite team. They had to stop teams from scoring, and a significant factor within that goal was getting off the field on 3rd down.
But is this early success more a product of schedule, or of a defense that has developed and is — in no specific order — better off the edge, better tacklers and better in coverage?
The best answer: a little of both.
Pitt scored 27 points on the Vols — without its starting quarterback for much of the second half of the game — but converted only 4-of-18 3rd downs (22 percent), including missing on both 3rd and 4th down in overtime.
The Vols gave up 7-of-28 vs. Ball State and Akron, the 2 worst MAC teams who are a combined 2-4 with wins over FCS Murray State and St. Francis.
And if you’re going to be intellectually honest about it, Tennessee built its No.4 in the nation scoring offense (52 ppg) on 122 points again the 2 worst teams in the MAC. The Vols scored 34 on Pitt, 27 in regulation.
Translation: We don’t really know what we have in Knoxville. At least not yet.
3. A quick fall
Florida beat Utah in the opener, and the Utes may not lose again.
Florida nearly lost to — and probably should’ve lost to — a USF team that finished last and tied for last in the AAC the past 2 seasons.
Florida lost to Kentucky at home, failing to score, or even stress the defense, over the final 36 minutes of the game.
How did it fall so quickly, you ask? The same way the hype began after the Utah win: QB Anthony Richardson, and his faltering confidence.
Since his terrific performance against the Utes (168 yards passing, 106 yards rushing, 3 TD), Richardson not only hasn’t been the same player — his performances have been counterproductive.
Against Kentucky and USF, Richardson was 24-of-53 (45 percent) for 255 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs. That’s not winning football — in the SEC, or anywhere else.
Florida can deal with a defense that’s sketchy after the starting 11, and even with the loss of MLB Ventrell Miller (foot), who may not be available for the Tennessee game. It can’t move forward and win SEC games if Richardson doesn’t play better.
He’s not the same player when he’s not part of the run game. It’s who he is as a player; it’s his football DNA. To take that away from him because the risk of injury is too great, and because there’s nothing behind him in the quarterback room, is a disservice to him and the team.
He had 11 carries against Utah, and a combined 13 against Kentucky and USF. In 4 career starts (including Georgia in 2021), Richardson is completing 54 percent of his passes, and has 0 TDs and 6 INTs.
The only way to change those numbers is making him part of the run game with zone reads and QB power. If Richardson is lacking confidence — and he admitted as much after the Kentucky game — what better way to get comfortable than by doing what he does best?
The alternative is not using Richardson on QB-designated runs, and the offense becomes a shadow of itself. And becomes the reason for a loss to Kentucky and a near-loss to USF.
And a loss to Tennessee.
4. The running show
Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech.
If you’re looking for a reason to not jump in the deep end with Ole Miss, those first 3 wins are as good as it gets.
But understand when Rebels coach Lane Kiffin went looking for an offensive coordinator after Jeff Lebby left for Oklahoma, he chose Charlie Weis Jr. because of their previous working relationship (at FAU and Alabama), and because Weis (like Lebby) believes in a downhill, power run game.
When Kiffin went to the transfer portal to add players, his top priority was the most-sought Power 5 tailback (Zach Evans) and Group of 5 tailback (Ulysses Bentley). Then freshman TB Quinshon Judkins arrived on campus, and the offense had 3 legitimate SEC running backs with what was quickly becoming a strong offensive line he built in his first 2 seasons in Oxford.
Those 3 have combined for 681 yards and 10 TDs, and are averaging 6.4 yards per carry as part of a unit that leads the SEC (and is No.4 in the nation) in rushing at 271.6 ypg. Again, the competition isn’t exactly Georgia and Alabama — but Ole Miss has more dynamic (and game-breaking) ability in the backfield than last season.
Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner were hard runners in 2021; they weren’t home run hitters like Evans and Judkins.
We’ll know more when Kentucky rolls into Oxford on Oct. 1, with a defense built to stop the run. With a defense that all but eliminated the Florida running game in the last 3 quarters of a 26-16 win.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread, brought to you by our friends at FanDuel.
- Missouri (+6.5) at Auburn
- Florida at Tennessee (-9.5)
- Arkansas (+2.5) vs. Texas A&M
- Tulsa at Ole Miss (-20.5)
- Vanderbilt at Alabama (-38)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Kentucky DT Justin Rogers.
“I’m excited to watch him this season. He’s come a long way from the first time I saw him on the field. He was just a big dude who kind of looked out of place. He got better in the COVID season, and then I really started noticing his ability to disrupt interiorly last season. Really active heavy hands, and can quickly shed blocks. He’s not the tallest guy, but I’m not caught up in that on the inside. He’s 6-3, he’s tall enough. I want a mauler in there, a guy who will get dirty and can use his hands and has strength and power. He has that. He’s going to be a mover in this draft.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: 1 non-superstar you can’t lose for extended time.
1. Georgia: S Dan Jackson. Can’t get him off the field. The walk-on just keeps making plays and has quickly become the glue in the secondary.
2. Alabama: WR Traeshon Holden. He’s not a burner, he’s not stressing defenses. He just makes the difficult look easy.
3. Kentucky: Edge JJ Weaver: NFL scouts say he can’t run. All he does is make big plays in the best conference in college football.
4. Arkansas: LB Bumper Pool. The funky name, the huge game. A powerful, smart presence on an underrated defense.
5. Texas A&M: LB Edgerrin Cooper. An athletic, tackling machine. If you don’t know him now, you’ll know him when he’s All-SEC at the end of the season.
6. Tennessee: WR Jalin Hyatt. Struggled early in his career, and Heupel stuck with him. Now he’s as dangerous/productive as star WR Cedric Tillman.
7. Ole Miss: G Nick Broeker, Ole Miss. A 3-year starter at OT, he moved inside — and is the reason the middle 3 are controlling the line of scrimmage for a productive run game.
8. LSU: RB Armoni Goodwin. Signed Noah Cain from Penn State, had hopes for John Emery Jr. Neither is as consistent as the undersized Goodwin.
9. Mississippi State: RB Dillon Johnson. Doesn’t get nearly enough credit (or carries) for his hard running, and is terrific in the passing game.
10. Florida: MLB Ventrell Miller. We’ve seen what it looks like in 2021 and last week. It’s not pretty.
11. South Carolina: CB Darius Rush. Cam Smith gets all the attention, but Rush is strong on the outside in man coverage and a big hitter.
12. Auburn: WR Ja’Varrius Johnson. As poor as the Auburn QBs have played, it would be even worse without Johnson’s ability to get open and make plays.
13. Missouri: WR Dominic Lovett. Tigers will eventually move to Luther Burden III as WR1, but Lovett has been a nice surprise in gaining yards after the catch.
14. Vanderbilt: WR Will Sheppard. Quickly, who leads the SEC in touchdown catches? Yep, Sheppard (with 7), who’s already more than halfway to his catch total of last season (43).
8. As and you shall receive
Matt: I thought South Carolina would play much better against Georgia than what we got. Then I hear Shane Beamer complaining about starters out on defense. It’s next man up buddy! I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t make it any better. — Chris Gordon, Charleston.
So I’m watching the Georgia-South Carolina game and I get this uneasy feeling, and text my editor: ‘Seriously, who is supposed to beat this team?”
His response: “It looks like a scrimmage.”
Don’t get all upset at what you see on the field with South Carolina, because you’re going to see the same against Missouri, Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky — do you need me to continue?
This Georgia team is stupid good. I wrote after Week 1 that I thought this team could actually be better than last year’s team because the offense is more balanced and QB Stetson Bennett is playing at such a high level and with so much confidence.
While I was watching that game, I kept thinking of Nick Saban’s early championship teams. The Greg McElroy-led team in 2009, the AJ McCarron-led teams in 2011-2012. The defenses on those teams were absolutely vicious. They wanted to hurt you.
That’s what I see at Georgia now. The defense is fast and athletic and tough — and they want to punish you. The offense — just like those Alabama teams — has a solid quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes and 2-3 elite skill players.
Georgia has TE Brock Bowers, and TB Kendall Milton and — don’t laugh — WR Ladd McConkey, who is Georgia’s version of Hunter Renfrow. Long answer short: They’re really good, and they (still) have a killer instinct. No one is beating them.
69.5. We’ll go with the number that matters at this point for the LSU passing offense: new QB Jayden Daniels is completing 69.5 percent of his passes, the highest number his career by nearly 5 percent.
But it’s much more than that. There were some on staff who questioned the signing of Daniels because of his uneven history at Arizona State and because of his locker room presence (that was clearly explained when he left and ASU players took to social media).
But Brian Kelly didn’t waver, and now Daniels not only is playing at a high level (8 total TDs, 0 INT), one staffer told me he has become the clear leader in the locker room — on and off the field. It was Daniels who evened out WR Kayshon Boutte in the season-opener, and Daniels who immediately went to WR Malik Nabers after his second fumbled punt in the FSU loss and kept him engaged.
Boutte, if he stays invested in what is likely his final season, will have a big year. Nabers will be a star, maybe as soon as this season.
10. Quote to note
Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea: “The quarterback is unlocking performance in the other 10 positions on the field and (AJ Swann) did that. Then those other guys stepped up and did their part, too. It’s what you want to see.”