UT-Florida: The SEC East Race Takes Shape

With Tennessee and Florida set to clash on Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin stadium, questions abound for both SEC East teams. Will Florida establish any life, or hell – maybe so much as even show a pulse — on offense? Can Tennessee, a year after breaking a string of eleven consecutive defeats at the hands of the Gators and more remarkably (and inhumanely, may I add) making a duck pull a truck, win in the Swamp for the first time since 2003? Can Florida overcome the continued absence of 9 players, including arguably its two most talented playmakers in running back Jordan Scarlett and wide receiver Antonio Callaway? Will Tennessee’s defense continue to give up chunk plays and 500+ yards? Come Saturday night, the answers to these questions will likely reverberate throughout the rest of both teams’ seasons.

Why Tennessee Should Win

Did I mention that Florida will be missing 9 players due to allegations of credit card fraud? Or what about the fact that Florida had 192 total yards of offense in its first game against Michigan, with a measly 11 of those 192 yards coming on the ground? Or maybe that Florida has only played one game heading into week three, a game in which they were thoroughly dominated on both sides of the ball and only scored three offensive points, having just seen one of the most devastating hurricanes in the history of the state cause widespread destruction. The list goes on and on.

Though no push-over, Tennessee also gets to go up against a largely inexperienced and young Florida defense. UF saw an astonishing number (7) of 2016 starters drafted in the NFL, and watched returning safety and de facto defensive leader Marcell Harris go do with a season-ending Achilles injury over the summer. With early departures and Harris’ injury, the Florida defense was tasked with replacing both starting cornerbacks, their top two safeties, both starting linebackers, two best defensive tackles, and a seasoned defensive end. Unless you’re Alabama and have your program operate like a professional football team, that’s a tall order for any school.

Meanwhile, Tennessee has bell cow back John Kelly to rely on. Through two games, the junior out of Michigan is fifth in the SEC in rushing with 208 yards. While not exactly facing the stiffest of competition through two games, Kelly has nonetheless averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry to go with 4 touchdowns.

For now, Tennessee’s perceived quarterback controversy appears settled between Junior Quinten Dormady and Redshirt Freshman Jarret Guarantano. Entering week three, Dormady’s completing an efficient 60% of his passes with a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio. More importantly, he led the team to a gut-check, comeback win against Georgia Tech in week one, as Tennessee trailed 28-14 in the fourth quarter before storming back for a 42-41 win in double overtime. Nonetheless, Dormady faces the first true road test of his career, and should expect Florida to stack the box and force him to successfully throw into press, man coverage.

Why Florida Should Win

Recent history (and by recent I mean the last twelve years) indicates the Gators will find a way to win against Tennessee. When you’ve beaten a team eleven out of the past twelve meetings, why not like your chances? Moreover, Florida just needs to think back to 2015 if it finds itself in a hole against the Vols. Trailing 26-14 late in the fourth quarter, Florida miraculously brought themselves back from the dead with a furious 14-point rally, punctuated by a 63 yard touchdown pass with 1:26 left to play. The win prompted the Gators head man to remark, “I think deep down, you just don’t lose to Tennessee.”

Having started the season with a lackluster embarrassment on national television and in lieu of their coach’s proclamation that they will play for “the people of the state of Florida” after Hurricane Irma’s destruction, it’s probably a safe bet the Gators will come out a hungry, desperate team on Saturday. A loss to a hated rival not only represents a setback in the race for the SEC East, but would mark the first time in 46 years Florida started the season 0-2. Summed up rather succinctly by sophomore linebacker David Reese,

“Yeah, you could look at this game as almost like a do or die type of game. It’s a real big point, a fork in the road.”

Should Florida win, their offense must find success against an underwhelming Tennessee defense. Dating back to last year, Tennessee’s defense has surrendered an average of 528.5 yards per game in their last six games. Largely labeled one of the home run hires of the 2015 offseason, it’s safe to say second year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has underwhelmed fifteen games into his tenure. Florida’s likely to try to exploit the question marks in the middle of Tennessee’s defense, as walk-on linebacker Colton Jumper and sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli have struggled to replace the production of Darrin Kirkland Jr, who was lost for the year a week before the season’s start. Regardless, Florida will need far more than 11 yards rushing than they had against Michigan in week one.

The Pick:

 Tennessee by 10. 23-13. Florida will keep the game close with an aggressive defensive scheme, but their lack of depth and the absence of key playmakers comes back to haunt them in the second half. Although Tennessee finds itself 3-0 in back to back years for the first time in forever, questions will remain whether Butch Jones can get over the hump and win the SEC East after beating an overmatched and underwhelming Florida team.

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