Fearless Prediction: Tennessee vs. Florida
Like the Vols, the Fearless Prediction has been dead solid perfect so far this season, winning all 3 contests.
But Ball State, Pittsburgh and Akron have only been the previews. On Saturday, we get the main event with Florida.
Knoxville has been at a fever pitch all week. The atmosphere should be electric on campus. ESPN College GameDay is setting up shop in Knoxville for the 1st time since 2016. Neyland Stadium will be dressed in its Saturday best with the Orange and White “Checker Neyland” experience.
Tennessee is rolling, averaging 52 points per game. The defense looks much improved from a year ago. On the other hand, Florida is coming off a home loss to Kentucky and a less-than-impressive win over South Florida.
The Vols have to be considered the favorite.
And yet …
Any fan of this rivalry can tell you that the Vols have lost 16 of their past 17 games against the Gators, and sometimes those losses have come in agonizing fashion.
Unlike the Alabama rivalry, which has seen the Vols have a realistic chance of winning maybe twice since 2007, Tennessee has played Florida close often.
Tennessee lost by a single point in 2006, 2014 and 2015, blew a 2nd-half lead in 2012 and lost on a 63-yard pass in 2017. All of those games were Tennessee’s for the taking. But weird things happen to the Vols in this rivalry, which is why UT fans enter the game with guarded confidence.
Let’s break down the matchup.
Hendon Hooker has been better than advertised in his time at Tennessee. Since becoming the starting quarterback in the 3rd game of the 2021 season, Hooker has thrown 42 TDs … and 2 INTs.
Under Josh Heupel, this Tennessee offense looks nothing like the previous regime, and let me tell you, that’s a good thing.
A major concern on Rocky Top this week is the health of Tennessee’s top receiver (Cedric Tillman) and one of their best running backs (Jabari Small). Both saw their nights cut short last Saturday against Akron. Heupel has been fairly quiet about their status, which is a bad sign … or a good sign … or a sign that he has no idea if they’ll be good to go against the Gators. Small has been a full participant in practice earlier this week.
Tennessee does have depth at those positions. Jalin Hyatt now leads the Vols’ receivers in catches, yards and TDs. Jaylen Wright is tops in carries and rushing yards, and he is tied for the team lead in rushing TDs with 3.
That said, UT is certainly better with Tillman and Small on the field.
As for Florida, starting QB Anthony Richardson has gone from being an early season Heisman Trophy candidate following the win over Utah to looking very pedestrian against Kentucky and South Florida. Richardson has rushed for 43 yards per game with 3 TDs, but his passing accuracy is a problem for the Gators. Richardson has completed just more than 53 percent of his passes for only 141 yards per game. He hasn’t thrown a TD pass and has 4 INTs.
Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne share the load in the run game for Florida, with XZavier Henderson the top target in the passing game with 15 catches.
No, Danny Wuerffel is not walking through that door.
On defense, Tennessee senior linebacker Aaron Beasley has taken a step forward this season, currently leading the team in tackles with 22. Byron Young leads the Vols with 6 QB hits and is tied for the lead in sacks with 2.
Florida’s defensive line and linebacking crew look like the strength of this team. OLB Brenton Cox Jr., a redshirt junior, might be the best of the bunch with 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and 5 QB hits.
This is one of those games from which legends are made at Tennessee. Al Wilson, Casey Clausen and Jauan Jennings are a few of the players whose Volunteer reputations were cast in stone thanks to at least 1 win over Florida.
Tennessee is ranked 11th in the country. After the debacle known as the end of the Jeremy Pruitt era, there were many college football observers who thought it would be at least 5 years until the Vols would be competitive again.
On Saturday afternoon, the Vols will prove that they are not only competitive but ready to turn this rivalry back in their favor.
Fearless Prediction time …
Tennessee 38, Florida 24