Every week your Florida Gators Insider will be previewing the team’s Saturday matchup. The column format may not be the same next week, as we’re still working out the kinks. Keep your eyes peeled for Swampland Things, a quick-thoughts recap of Saturday’s game, to publish early next week.
On to more pressing matters in Knoxville…
No. 18 Florida Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) at No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers (2-0, 0-0)
Saturday September 16th 6:00 PM EST
Series History: Florida 22-19
News and numbers to know for this weekend’s rivalry game
-Florida has won the previous seven meetings against the Vols
-This year’s game is the first time both teams have been ranked since 2007
-Last week’s victory over Texas A&M earned Will Muschamp’s first win after trailing at halftime. Florida was 0-5 in those situations last season.
-Vols WR Justin Hunter tore his ACL in last year’s matchup against the Gators. This year he is Tennessee’s leading receiver with 219 yards and 3 touchdowns.
-As I noted in my mid-week injury report, defensive end Ronald Powell will likely be given a medical redshirt from an ACL injury he suffered this past spring. There were birds chirping that Powell may be able to return to the defense, but not this season.
-Count on Vols DT Darrington Sentimore to spice up this edition of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. On Monday he proclaimed: “I think people want to wait and see what we do against Florida, I’m here to tell them we’re going to beat them”
So much for floating under the radar, eh, Darrington?
Will Injuries Slow Down Gator Defense?
Florida will not be at full strength on defense when they clash with Tennessee. Emerging linebacker Jelani Jenkins and nickelback Cody Riggs will be out for up to four weeks with thumb and foot injuries, respectively.
Overcoming the loss of Jenkins in the front-seven will be no simple task. He is easily one of the Gator’s best playmakers when healthy. Freshman Antonio Morrison will step in and try to conjure up the same magic last week filling in for Jenkins, finishing with six tackles.
The Gators’ secondary is also a deep group, with “Pop” Saunders coming back from suspension and safety Matt Elam able to slide over to the nickel position. The matchup against Tennessee’s wideouts, though, will require the secondary to gel quickly. More on this later.
Will Florida Have Any Speed On Offense?
The Gators enjoyed success against the Vols the past few seasons credited to their abundance of speed on the outside.
Four years ago, Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy ran around the Tennessee secondary to blowout wins. More recently, Gators RBs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey carried the torch; Tennessee’s defensive players simply couldn’t meet Florida’s backs to the edge.
This year it seems, though, that the Gators’ speed advantage has finally dried up. Florida wide receivers had a measly 3 catches against Texas A&M, while their running backs don’t provide much of a speed burst outside the tackles.
On the other side, Tennessee has capable defenders in LB AJ Johnson and S Byron Moore who have the talent to prevent big plays and big-game experience.
Gators QB Jeff Driskel showed last weekend that he could connect with his wideouts in a hostile environment; Whether Driskel gets any assistance his skill players could decide the result of this rivalry game. Andre Debose, Quentin Dunbar or Mack Brown are on call.
As Eminem once said, and I rephrased for this column: Will the Florida speed please stand up?
Matchup of the Week
Gators Secondary vs. Tennessee’s Passing Game
The defense will need to gear up for the toughest challenge yet in Knoxville: the Tennessee aerial attack.
Tyler Bray leads the Vols passing game and is no longer a naive first-year starter; he’s a potential NFL quarterback with all the tools to pick apart Florida’s secondary.
As for the Vols receiving core, life without Dar’rick Rodgers has been no problem.
They have two quality targets for Bray in Corradelle Patterson and Justin Hunter that can stretch the field. Both are 6’3” and taller, posing a combination of size and speed that Gators cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy have yet to encounter.
There were good indications in College Station that this Gator secondary can hold up against the talented Vols pass-catchers. When Florida decided to bring additional pressure, the corners were left out on a island against the Aggies receivers, and succeeded. This was especially prominent in the red zone.
Florida RB Mike Gillislee
The SEC’s leading rusher has carried the Gator offense thus far, rushing for 231 yards and a 6.1 yards per carry average. Injured during the fourth quarter versus Texas A&M, Gillislee will need to rest up; he’ll have a heavy workload in Knoxville.
Tennessee QB Tyler Bray
Bray played admirably in this rivalry last year at the Swamp, throwing three touchdowns but two costly interceptions sealed the Vols fate. So far so good in Tennessee’s two games this season; the junior has thrown 6 touchdowns and has yet to turn the ball over. If he can stay poised early, his team will be in prime position to break the Gators’ winning streak.
Totally Unbiased Reason the Gators Will Win
In the Florida-Tennessee rivalry, the team that has rushed for more yards has won the last nine contests. Florida will rely on Gillislee to motor their offense, while Tennessee may run more special teams than give the ball to starting RB Rajion Neal.