There’s no reason to believe that Saturday’s hit on Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio was anything resembling a cheap shot.

The Gators are crying foul, and understandably so. Following a 32-0 shutout of North Texas in Week 3, they are an increasingly confident 3-0 team heading into this coming week’s showdown with SEC East rival Tennessee.

However, now UF will have to travel to Knoxville without the services of its starting QB, as Del Rio suffered a knee injury in the third quarter that will likely keep him on the shelf for a while — exactly how long, we don’t yet know. Purdue transfer Austin Appleby is in line to rise up the depth chart for the orange and blue.

Del Rio, a transfer himself, was completing 61.4 percent of his passes with a TD-to-INT ratio of 6-to-2.

Following the play in question, which saw Del Rio down on the turf for quite some time before he limped gingerly to the locker room, Florida became chippy with the Mean Green. Guard Martez Ivey even got ejected from the proceedings.

North Texas linebacker Joshua Wheeler, rushing from the blind side, dove in a failed attempt to make a play on Del Rio delivering a pass downfield. Wheeler’s right shoulder landed with a full head of steam on Del Rio’s left leg — freshly planted into the turf — as he followed through on the throw.

If you’re a Gators fan, you probably think the blow was delivered with intent to injure. But you would be wrong.

This is one of the unfortunate consequences of football’s endless journey to protect the passer at all costs. Defenders know that getting anywhere near a signal caller’s helmet results in instant laundry on the field.

Sep 17, 2016; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio (14) gets checked out by trainers on the field and then leaves the game against the North Texas Mean Green during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the North Texas Mean Green 32-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Wheeler surely overcompensated and hit Del Rio lower than he originally anticipated. He didn’t lead with the crown of his helmet. He didn’t twist the leg in an effort to cause as much damage as possible. But with targeting penalties — and their subsequent disqualifications — more common, mistakes the other way are inevitable.

What UF needs to do now is forget about being upset at North Texas and start getting Appleby ready for the Volunteers.

a tale of two teams

Tennessee is 3-0. Florida is also 3-0. But while the Volunteers have looked shaky more often than not during their undefeated run, the Gators appear to be hitting their stride in all three phases of the game.

Despite the fact that UF is coming off a division title, UT was the selection at SEC Media Days — in landslide fashion, too — to win the East. The Vols returned every starter who mattered and were ready to make the leap in Year 4 for coach Butch Jones. The Gators were supposed to step back in Year 2 under coach Jim McElwain.

The weight of expectations seem heavy for Tennessee. Florida, conversely, simply keeps playing the disrespect card.

The Volunteers are supposed to win this one. They’re at home. They have the more experienced quarterback in Joshua Dobbs. They’ve been waiting quite some time to have all the odds stacked in their favor just so.

But the Gators have had UT’s number for years. They enjoy an 11-game winning streak in the series, with some of those triumphs coming in “did that really just happen?” fashion — including a season ago in Gainesville. The Vols have collapsed spectacularly a few times the past decade-plus.

With or without Del Rio, this isn’t a Florida team built on All-American play at the game’s most important position.

A triumvirate of tailbacks have rushed for between 161 and 175 yards in three games, averaging anywhere from 5.2 to 5.6 yards per carry. The receiving corps is led by the explosive artistry of Antonio Callaway.

Sep 17, 2016; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby (12) prepares to throw the ball against the North Texas Mean Green during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the North Texas Mean Green 32-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Most important, this Gators defense is playing out of its mind right now. Among SEC programs, UF is first against the run, first against the pass, first in total defense, first in scoring defense, first in sacks — it’s a terrifying bunch. Has the competition been weak? Yes. But the numbers are no less jaw-dropping.

Nothing will give Appleby (above) more comfort than knowing he probably won’t have to score 30-35 points to win this contest.

Not to mention the fact that Tennessee has been more down than up offensively thus far. Dobbs remains limited as a passer. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara have been held in check on the ground. Advantage? Florida.

from del rio to appleby

No question about it, the Del Rio situation puts a bit of a damper on this highly anticipated matchup. Even with the calendar still stuck on September, the outcome could very well determine the East. Tennessee is also less than full strength, having lost all-conference cornerback Cameron Sutton to a bum ankle.

Del Rio, a two-time transfer who didn’t get much of a chance at Alabama or Oregon State, was coming into his own with the Gators.

Still, it’s reasonable to assume that Appleby can be similarly productive. In limited action this year, he’s 2-of-5 passing for 30 yards. He threw 19 touchdowns against 19 interceptions during his career with the Boilermakers.

As was the case with Del Rio, Appleby won’t be asked to carry the club offensively. He’ll hand the ball off liberally to a stable full of running backs. He’ll make high-percentage throws underneath and take an occasional shot downfield to Callaway. UF’s defense might even be its best offense all things considered.

If there’s a team in the SEC capable of absorbing an injury to its starting quarterback, it’s Florida. Especially against Tennessee.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.