Who has the edge: Florida vs. Tennessee
In Week 4, the Hype Train meets The Streak.
The media believes that this will be Tennessee’s year to go to Atlanta – or at least it did in July at SEC Media Days. The Volunteers have somewhat stumbled out of the gate, but are 3-0 and in position to contend in what’s looking like a wide open SEC East.
But can UT be taken seriously as a contender until it beats UF? After all, Florida has won the past 11 meetings. Every time the Vols’ hype train gains steam, it just makes the Gators that much more determined to extend the streak another year.
Tennessee is the favorite, but a position-by-position look reveals that Florida might have a better chance than the betting line indicates:
When Florida has the ball
UF QB Austin Appleby vs. UT pass defense: Appleby, a transfer from Purdue, says that having played on the road against teams like Nebraska and Iowa have prepared him for Neyland Stadium. We shall see about that.
It will be Appleby’s first start since transferring to Florida in January. When he entered the North Texas game following Luke Del Rio’s injury, the Gators turned to the ground game, asking Appleby to only throw four passes in the final quarter. For his career, Appleby is 270-of-490 for 2,807 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Florida’s offensive line has only allowed one sack, but that’s against UMass, Kentucky and North Texas. Tennessee is surprisingly near the bottom of the SEC in sacks (No. 12), having recorded only three so far.
Tennessee’s passing defense numbers are a mixed bag. In yards per game allowed, the Vols are No. 2 in the SEC (184). In completion percentage, however, UT is No. 11, allowing 59.8.
With Appleby having only thrown five passes for Florida this season, there’s very little available in terms of relevant stats. The numbers on UF’s pass protection and Tennessee’s pass defense suggest an advantage for the Gators, but UT is far more talented on defense than any of Florida’s previous opponents.
And that’s despite the Vols missing one key performer, All-SEC defensive back Cam Sutton, and playing several others who aren’t completely healthy.
UF running back committee vs. UT run defense: With the Gators starting a backup quarterback who is as likely to throw an interception as a touchdown, one can expect them to lean on the run Saturday. They look to have the backs to do it.
In the past two games, Florida has employed a committee approach of four running backs: Jordan Scarlett (33 carries, 175 yards, 2 TD), Mark Thompson (32 carries, 166 yards, 2 TD), Lamical Perine (29 carries, 161 yards, TD) and Jordan Cronkrite (below, 17 carries, 80 yards, TD). Expect the four backs to split the workload in the first three quarters, while the team may go with the hot hand in the fourth quarter if the game is close.
The numbers are impressive, but the question is will they be able to break and bounce off Tennessee tacklers the way they have against other teams? UT DC Bob Shoop declared this summer that no one would run on the Volunteers.
So far Tennessee is No. 9 among SEC teams in rushing defense, allowing 152.7 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry to the likes of Appalachian State, Virginia Tech and Ohio.
This game looks like the ideal time to feed the rock to the four running backs.
UF wide receivers vs. UT defensive backs: This matchup isn’t the same with injuries to UF WR Antonio Callaway (questionable) and UT CB Cam Sutton (out), but we can still look at some position group and individual stats.
Tennessee’s secondary doesn’t have much to brag about right now. The unit is in the bottom half of the conference in interceptions (No. 11), passes broken up (No. 9) and passes defended (No. 12).
Granted, some of that is due to opponent’s play-calling. If the other team wants to run, it’s impossible to defend the pass.
But Florida receivers not named Callaway don’t have a lot to brag about, either. Even though he’s only played two games, Callaway is the team’s leading receiver with 13 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
(And, of course, he extended the winning streak last year, converting an easy fourth-down reception into a 63-yard game-winner.)
That makes Callaway’s average receiving yards per game 100.5. After Callaway, it’s quite a dropoff, as Brandon Powell averages 45.3 yards per game (14 catches, 136 yards, 2 TD).
With Callaway’s status unknown, this feels like a tossup.
When Tennessee has the ball
UT passing game vs. UF pass defense: The knock on UT QB Joshua Dobbs is that he can’t throw the deep ball. In his second season as the starting quarterback out of camp, it’s still an issue.
Florida would like for Dobbs’ passing to be the deciding factor Saturday. Tennessee would like to get by with mainly throwing short passes underneath, and maybe the occasional play-action deep pass.
If the Vols ask Dobbs to sit in the pocket while a play develops, it could lead to trouble. The Gators lead the country with 16 sacks after three games. Tennessee is ninth in the SEC in protection, having allowed seven sacks allowed so far.
Florida is leading the SEC in passing defense, giving up only 87.3 passing yards per game. Tennessee’s passing offense is ranked No. 12 in the SEC, averaging 162 yards per game.
UT running game vs. UF run defense: Last year, this matchup almost defined the game – key word “almost.” Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd led a Tennessee rushing effort that racked up 254 yards against the Gators in The Swamp. For three quarters it looked like enough to change the tide in the rivalry.
So far this season, Florida’s defense has been incredibly stingy, allowing only 127 total over three games. That’s only 42.3 yards per game and 1.3 yards per carry on 97 attempts.
No offense to UF’s first three opponents, but the defense hasn’t faced runners quite like Dobbs (37 rushes, 161 yards, 3 TD) and Hurd (65 carries, 270 yards, 2 TD) yet. When one considers that Florida lost its top run-stopper from last year, DT Jonathan Bullard, to the NFL, it seems probable that those run defense stats will take a hit after playing Tennessee.
Stopping UMass, Kentucky and North Texas is noteworthy, but it doesn’t exactly prove that the Gators are ready for Dobbs and Hurd Round 2.
UT receivers vs. UF secondary: Are Tennessee’s wideouts finally about to take the next step? Josh Malone has stepped up this year, hauling in nine catches for 196 yards and four touchdowns. Preston Williams (8 catches, 70 yards) hasn’t quite had the breakout game yet, but he’s a certainly a name to watch for on Saturday.
It’s unlikely, however, that either Malone or Williams has a big day for the Volunteers. They have the challenging draw of going up against Florida cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson all day.
Tennessee fans loathe Tabor. Teez, Jalen, whatever you prefer to call him, is Public Enemy No. 1 in Knoxville. Tabor has talked a lot of smack toward Tennessee in various forms of media, guaranteeing a victory because that’s all he knows as a Gator – they beat the Vols and that’s the way it is.
6'0 , 190. Jst talkin for attention. Not gonna end well buddy 🙏🏽
— Jalen Hurd (@MrHurd_1) April 15, 2016
Florida coach Jim McElwain lets Tabor talk because he’s good enough to back it up. While sharing a secondary with No. 11 overall pick Vernon Hargreaves III, Tabor was thrown at frequently last season. That resulted in an impressive four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and 14 pass breakups for Tabor. This season his biggest highlight has come on an interception against Kentucky in which he jumped a screen route.
If the Vols think life gets any easier throwing away from Tabor, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise. The Gators don’t believe in assigning a cornerback to a specific receiver, so Malone and Williams will both get plenty of matchups against Wilson, as in the 6-foot-1 Wilson who makes one-handed interceptions.
Florida K Eddy Pineiro has demonstrated his big leg by making a 54-yard field goal, but he’s only kicked in The Swamp. There’s really no way for the team to simulate what it will be like for him to kick in Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee K Aaron Medley is only 3-of-5 on the year so far when it comes to field goals, but he does have home-field advantage on Saturday.
Johnny Townsend was one of the best punters in the SEC, when he logged an impressive 45.4 yards per punt, but he was edged by one SEC East punter: Tennessee’s Trevor Daniel (45.7 yards per punt). Townsend has the better average this year – 50.3 yards per punt to Daniel’s 43.7 – but the sample sizes are obviously small.
Neither team appears to be strong in the punt return game this week. UT’s ace returner, Sutton, is out. Callaway, who dazzled as Florida’s punt returner last season, is questionable dealing with a quad injury.