SEC Week 4 Primer: Florida-Tennessee isn't the rivalry it used to be, but it still points the way forward in the East
Breaking down the weekend’s SEC slate, all in one place.
Game of the Week: Florida at Tennessee (–10.5)
As marquee rivalries go, Florida-Tennessee isn’t what it used to be and hasn’t been for a long time. Besides being hopelessly one-sided, with Florida taking 16 of the last 17 going back to 2005, the series is also many years removed from the years when both teams were reliable annual contenders, when the game could immediately solidify the winner as the de facto favorite to win the SEC East and plausibly compete for a national title. The players taking the field this weekend are too young to even remember when that was the case. Saturday will mark just the 4th time in the past 15 meetings that Tennessee (11th in the current AP poll) is ranked at kickoff, and just the 2nd time in that span that both teams are ranked in the top 20. When people start thinking about which annual rivalries to protect after the SEC abandons the East/West format in the next few years, it’s an open debate these days whether Gators-Vols should be one of them.
Still, given its place on the calendar, it remains a significant tone-setter for both teams’ seasons — a game they must have to even think about bigger and better things to come. For Tennessee, optimism is running higher at the moment than it has in ages: The Vols are 3-0, on the cusp of the top 10, and very plausible contenders for a New Year’s 6 bowl. The long-suffering base, while remaining on guard against yet another boom-and-bust cycle, is maaaaybe beginning to consider allowing itself to believe the rebuilding project under Josh Heupel actually has legs. Recruiting is on the upswing. The team has already passed 1 crucial early test, coming away with an overtime win at Pitt in the 1st of the 4 or 5 swing games (along with Florida, LSU, Kentucky and possibly South Carolina) that will define the season as a success or a missed opportunity.
From 1-10 on the We Want Bama Scale, the idea of improving to 4-0 against the Gators might be something like a 4, at best. But considering the Vols’ dismal track record in the series, along with the related fact that they’ve been 4-0 only twice this century, it would be another very big step toward reassuring the home crowd the project is on schedule and moving in the right direction.
For Florida, there’s slightly less urgency in Billy Napier‘s debut, especially after a couple of blah outings the past 2 weeks against Kentucky and South Florida curbed the initial enthusiasm that followed an opening-night upset over Utah. The Gators’ gifted young quarterback, Anthony Richardson, has regressed badly, and their defense was just gashed for 300 yards rushing by a thoroughly mediocre USF offense. A win in Knoxville would refute the feeling that this is shaping up as a lost year, as well as (more importantly) reinforce bragging rights in a rivalry Florida has owned for going on 2 decades. Above all, it would alert Gators fans to continue to brace themselves for an emotional roller-coaster from 1 week to the next.
The stat: 48.8%
That’s the 3rd-down conversion rate of opposing offenses against Florida’s defense this season, worst in the SEC and among the worst of any Power 5 defense nationally. Utah was 8-for-13 on 3rd downs in the opener, and USF — an outfit that has rarely shown signs of offensive life in any phase over the past 4 years — converted 8 of 15 last week, including 3 on 3rd-and-10 or longer. The Bulls also pulled off a couple of 4th-down conversions that led to 10 points.
As with just about any other statistic at this point, that’s much too small of a sample size to read too much into just a few weeks into the season. Florida’s defense was mostly fine on high-leverage downs against Kentucky, holding the Wildcats to just 4-of-13 on 3rd down and 0-of-1 on 4th. But against an offense as fast-paced and explosive as Tennessee’s, every opportunity to get the Vols off the field is a crucial one.
The big question: What’s the deal with Anthony Richardson?
Richardson is the most enigmatic player in college football: Capable of almost anything on any given play, in any direction. He offered glimpses of his enormous talent last year off the bench, and he looked the part in Week 1, accounting for 274 total yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, a viral highlight and no turnovers against a sturdy Utah defense. But his last 2 performances have set off alarms. Against Kentucky and USF, he averaged a paltry 4.8 yards per attempt with zero TDs, 4 picks and minimal impact as a runner.
PICK SIX @KeidronS!
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 11, 2022
Even factoring in the opener, Richardson will take the field Saturday ranked 12th among SEC starters in Total QBR and dead last in pass efficiency, which under different circumstances might be imminently benchable numbers. That’s an unlikely scenario in his case, for 2 reasons: One, the Gators can afford to suffer some growing pains as long as Richardson’s long-term upside outweighs his short-term inconsistency; and two, who else they got? The top backup, Ohio State transfer Jack Miller III, remains a question mark as he recovers from preseason thumb surgery, leaving redshirt freshman Jalen Kitna as the de facto QB2. For better or worse — or likely both — Florida is riding with Richardson for the foreseeable future.
The key matchup: Tennessee WR Jalin Hyatt vs. Florida DB Tre’Vez Johnson
There are 2 notable names on the injury report, 1 on each side and both potential X factors. For Florida, it’s 6th-year LB Ventrell Miller, who was sorely missed in the middle of the defense against USF and remains questionable with an unspecified lower-body injury. (He was sorely missed last year while sitting out the entire season with a bicep injury, as well.) For Tennessee, it’s WR Cedric Tillman, who also may or may not play on a gimpy ankle and will likely be less than 100 percent if he does. Tillman’s chemistry with QB Hendon Hooker was a major development over the 2nd half of 2021, when they connected for 10 touchdowns in the last 7 games, and was even more obvious in the win over Pitt, where Hooker targeted Tillman 18 times for 162 yards and the eventual game-winning touchdown in overtime.
With Tillman’s status in doubt, the focus in the passing game shifts to Hyatt, a true junior who comes in as the team leader in receptions (18), yards (267) and touchdowns (3) from the slot. Known mainly for his speed, Hyatt also had a high-volume afternoon against Pitt, catching 11 of 13 targets for 73 yards, and went electric in last week’s blowout win over Akron, scoring twice from 57 and 48 yards out.
Lost: Jalin Hyatt
Found: the endzone
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 18, 2022
Obviously, Florida is not Akron. Because he works almost exclusively out of the slot, Hyatt will line up most of the time across from Johnson, who works almost exclusively out the nickel. Johnson has been gettable in the past, giving up 3 touchdowns in 2021, and while PFF has yet to tag him for a TD this year he has allowed 7 catches (for 78 yards) on 9 targets. But he’s been game, too, coming down with his 3rd career interception in the win over USF. Tennessee should go out of its way to ensure he gets as much face time on Saturday as possible.
Bonus matchup: Tennessee RT Darnell Wright vs. Florida edge Brenton Cox Jr.
The most direct way to ground Tennessee’s vertical passing attack is via pressure: Last year Hooker was sacked 40 times, the most of any SEC starter, and Pitt dropped him 4 times in Week 2. On that note, Cox is absolutely one of the last guys right now a potentially vulnerable quarterback wants to see. Although he’s yet to record an official sack on paper, Cox has been as relentless and active in the early going as ever, playing like a man determined to erase any doubts about his consistency, motor and effort.
Brenton Cox is strong strong ? pic.twitter.com/oR4r6DXT7v
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 10, 2022
Wright, a former 5-star in his own right in his 4th year as a starter, has had a polarizing career in Knoxville, where his production has generally lagged well behind his potential. He’s shaping up as a polarizing pro prospect for the same reason. But he’s off to an encouraging start as a senior, having yet to allow a sack or a QB hit by PFF’s accounting after giving up 10 sacks and 9 hits over the previous 3 seasons. Now comes the real test.
Tennessee has lost 5 straight in the series since its last win in 2016, which in some ways has been as bad as the 11-game streak that preceded it. The Vols were 0-4 vs. Dan Mullen’s Gators, the closest call coming in a 31-19 defeat in 2019 that wasn’t nearly as competitive as the score suggested. (Florida led 31-7 before giving up a couple meaningless scores in garbage time.) In that context, kicking off as a 10.5-point favorite, at home, is a real “if not now, when?” opportunity.
Prediction-wise, there’s no accounting for Richardson, whose struggles do not alter the fact that he boasts game-changing potential every time he steps on the field. But his 1st-ever road start in an environment that will likely be approaching maximum hostility isn’t exactly the ideal scenario to bet on him suddenly turning the corner, either. Hooker, on the other hand, is a steady vet who has seen it all and then some. His only previous start in the CBS showcase time slot came last November in a 41-17 loss vs. Georgia, the worst possible opponent to make an impression on a national audience. This time, the stage is set for him to make the leap from local favorite to the September Heisman radar. If he takes advantage, it might be time for Tennessee to start thinking about the possibility of eventually, at some undetermined point in the not-too-distant future, thinking big.
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Tennessee 33 | • Florida 24
A&M’s quest for more juice in the passing game is looking up this week with the reinstatement of 5-star freshmen Chris Marshall and Evan Stewart, both of whom were late scratches in last week’s win over Miami due to curfew violations. Marshall and Stewart had their moments in Weeks 1 and 2 and will give QB Max Johnson a couple of potential difference-makers flanking the only known quantity among the wideouts, Ainias Smith, in the slot. One way or another, the offense needs to come up with an answer other than RB/KR Devon Achane, who has personally accounted for nearly 60 percent of the team’s all-purpose yards the past 2 weeks and either scored or directly set up all 4 touchdowns.
For Arkansas, a primetime ESPN kick is a golden opportunity to introduce the rest of the country to the Super Sanders Bros. — running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, the SEC’s all-purpose yardage leader at 185.7 ypg, and linebacker Drew Sanders, a 5-star Alabama transfer taking up residence in opposing backfields on a weekly basis. (No actual relation, to be clear.) A breakout performance against the Aggies could set either or both of them on an All-America track.
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• Arkansas 26 | Texas A&M 20
Auburn’s quarterback situation went from bad to worse on Thursday with news that backup QB Zach Calzada is out for the season due to a shoulder injury. Calzada had yet to see the field this season, but with starter TJ Finley also on ice on Saturday — and possibly longer — that leaves the ball in Robby Ashford‘s hands for his 1st career start. The only remaining insurance policy behind Ashford is a true freshman, Holden Geriner, whose name casual Auburn fans would probably have preferred not to have to learn for at least another year or 2. RBs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter should be in for heavy duty.
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• Auburn 27 | Missouri 16
Vanderbilt hasn’t visited Alabama since 2011, and hasn’t scored against Alabama since 2007, in Nick Saban‘s first SEC game as the Tide’s head coach. You just know both sides of this long, storied rivalry are looking forward to a scheduling realignment that brings them together again more than twice a decade.
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• Alabama 51 | Vanderbilt 9
For years Kent State has been one of the most ambitious mid-major outfits in terms of nonconference scheduling. Or maybe we should say, one of the most resilient. Saturday will mark the Golden Flashes’ 22nd road trip against a Power 5 opponent since 2013, including well-compensated dates at Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, Clemson, Auburn, Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and, most recently, Washington and Oklahoma. Their record in those games: 0-21 by an average score of 42 to 9. For some reason, the new athletic director has decided to reconsider their priorities.
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• Georgia 52 | Kent State 3
Ole Miss faces its last nonconference tuneup before moving on to the SEC slate, beginning with a surprisingly high-stakes game against Kentucky. This used to be the kind of game the Rebels would occasionally mess around and lose, but under Lane Kiffin they’ve yet to play a regular-season nonconference game decided by fewer than 13 points.
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• Ole Miss 38 | Tulsa 17
NIU lost its best player, All-MAC WR/KR Trayvon Rudolph, to a preseason knee injury. This week, the Huskies could also be without improbably named QB Rocky Lombardi, a Michigan State transfer who was knocked out of last week’s 38-28 loss to Vanderbilt with an unspecified injury and remains touch-and-go for Saturday. His presence or absence won’t make any difference in the outcome — despite some sloppiness on offense, Kentucky dispatched its first 2 nonconference victims, Miami (Ohio) and Youngstown State, by a combined 68-13 — but if it’s worth, say, 7-10 points, it might be the most interesting thing about this game.
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Kentucky 34 | • Northern Illinois 10
Kayshon Boutte won’t be available for LSU after the birth of his 1st child on Thursday, which is about as good a reason to miss a football game as there is. Fortunately for the Tigers, the kid arrived exactly when it did and not in the middle of the conference grind. Good timing, kid!
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• LSU 44 | New Mexico 6
Bowling Green pulled off the wildest upset of Week 3, taking down Marshall (-17.5) in double overtime just 1 week after a) Marshall ambushed Notre Dame in South Bend, and b) Bowling Green lost a nail-biter to FCS Eastern Kentucky. The Falcons fell into an immediate 14-0 hole against the Thundering Herd after giving up 2 long touchdowns in the first 3 minutes, but they clawed out of it in part thanks to the acrobatic efforts of WR Odieu Hilaire on what may legitimately be the Catch of the Year to date:
— CFB over all (@PickettsPool) September 17, 2022
Nothing about that catch or the final result makes a lick of sense, or frankly has any bearing on what happens in Starkville. This entry was mainly just an excuse to point out that Notre Dame has a transitive loss to Eastern Kentucky.
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Mississippi State 41 | • Bowling Green 13
Charlotte ranks dead last nationally in total defense while allowing 40+ points in all 4 games to date, including a 41-24 loss to FCS William & Mary. The Gamecocks, and beleaguered QB Spencer Rattler, specifically, have no excuse for not extending that streak.
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South Carolina 36 | • Charlotte 17
Week 3 Record: 9–1 straight-up | 6–3 vs. spread
Season Record: 24–5 straight-up | 11–16 vs. spread