It’s Football Time in Tennessee! Welcome to Tennessee Game Week where every week this fall I’ll be previewing the Vols’ upcoming match-up as well as whatever other random college football takes I may have. Check back every Wednesday or Thursday for predictions, key match-ups, players to watch, and more so you can go into Saturday pretending to know what the hell you’re talking about.
Florida Week is finally upon us, sports fans. Over the next few days, Knoxville will be flooded with jorts-clad swamp trash as the Vols prepare to take on the Gators in what feels like Tennessee’s best chance to pick up a notable win in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season. Pruitt’s first SEC win as a head coach coming against a hated rival would be a perfect start to his career, so let’s dive into why Tennessee will win this game, why they won’t, and what match-ups to watch.
But first, let’s set the tone.
That one always feels good.
Tennessee (2-1) and Florida (2-1) are both led by first-year guys at head coach and both coaches have their new squads off to similar steady yet not overwhelmingly impressive starts. Tennessee, of course, dropped it’s opener in Charlotte against a West Virginia team that will likely flirt with a top-10 ranking all season. Their two wins came at home against cupcakes ETSU and UTEP with the Vols looking pretty average in both. Likewise, Florida has beaten two sub-par squads in Charleston Southern and Colorado State, but their loss came at home to Kentucky, a game in which the Gators’ offense looked rather anemic and which ended a long drought for the Wildcats.
Both teams are also similar in the sense that we don’t what the hell either team is supposed to be good at. Tennessee’s running game exploded for 345 yards against UTEP, averaging almost 7 yards per carry with four tailbacks factoring in. In other games this season, though, the Vols’ offensive line has shown a real inability to run block for large stretches at a time. Guarantano has been reliable, but the coaching staff either doesn’t fully trust him or has been waiting for a big game to open the playbook. Are we a passing team? Are we a running team? Are we really any good at either? I don’t think we know yet.
Florida doesn’t know, either. Feleipe Franks (how is that still their best option btw?) threw 38 times against Kentucky, completing only 17. Against an inferior Colorado State team the next week, Franks only threw 15 times while Florida’s backs averaged 7.7 yards per carry and sliced apart the Rams’ defense. Again, there is an incentive to not give your future opponents anything good in the game film, but Florida doesn’t appear to have a clear offensive identity either and neither their running game nor passing game looks to be able to overwhelm anyone, either.
That should bode well for two defenses who are off to shaky starts and have obvious holes. Tennessee’s pass rush, which I will rant about until they prove me wrong, has been our glaring weakness. There was slightly better pressure against UTEP, but we still only managed two sacks bringing our season total to a measly five. I’m not sure if Kongbo is still out there because of his high recruiting rank or if he really is somehow the best guy the Vols can find, but either way, our inexperienced secondary is not good enough to compensate and our pass defense will likely be an Achilles heel all season. The Tennessee run defense has been steady, but have yet to face a decent running team. We’ll table that conversation for next week.
Florida’s rush defense, meanwhile, gave up 303 yards on the ground against Kentucky. Self-proclaimed best running back in the SEC Benny Snell, Jr. is indeed a stud, but 303 rushing yards is an embarrassment for a Florida program that has relied heavily on its defense the past several years. Much like the Vols’ run defense, the Gators pass defense has not really been tested. Still, would you rather have a pass defense that gave up 429 yards to West Virginia or a run defense that gave up 303 yards to Kentucky? I think I’m taking the former, but that’s not a vote of confidence by any means.
Why the Vols Will Win
As much as I want to see Tennessee cut Guarantano loose, it does feel like this is a game where the Vols need to pound the running game. First, just look at the numbers. Tennessee is coming off a 345 yard rushing game and is facing a defense who gave up 303 rushing yards to the only decent team they’ve played. Second, though, this one is probably going to be ugly. Neither offense will likely break past the low 20’s in scoring meaning points are going to be at a premium. Guarantano has been reliable, but interceptions are game changers in ugly games. Stick to the ground and turnovers are much less likely. The one problem is that Florida’s First-Team All-SEC defensive tackle CeCe Jefferson is back (he didn’t play against Kentucky). With the play we’ve seen from our interior O-line, he alone could shut down the run. Still, I do think the Vols offensive line should be just good enough to find some room for the tailbacks and Tennessee will ride Ty Chandler and Co. to a win in this low scoring affair.
Why the Vols Will Lose
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Florida has some play-makers on offense and Tennessee might not have an answer. First, Felipe Franks may not strike fear in anyone, but he does have 9 TDs on the season to just 2 interceptions despite a completion percentage of just over 50%. This means that when he does get the ball to his guys, they make things happen. And although he only has six catches on the season, the one Tennessee needs fear most is Freddie Swain. Swain is a fast dude and is dangerous in space, as evidenced by his 85 yard punt return TD last week.
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He is also a home run threat in the passing game averaging 17.5 yards per catch this season. Swain will look to find room to outrun an inexperienced Vols secondary and the pass rush might struggle to hurry Franks. That is the perfect recipe for an ill-timed deep ball. If the pass rush keeps struggling, Franks and his WRs could do enough damage to outpace Tennessee’s offense.
The Gators also boast a home run threat in the backfield in Dameon Pierce. Pierce did his best Ty Chandler impression last week and reeled off a 68 yard TD against Colorado State in which he looked twice as fast as anyone on the defense. The Vols rush defense has yet to be tested this year and the Gators will likely come into Knoxville looking to grind this one out on the ground with some deep passes sprinkled in. If the pass rush is anemic again or if the run defense proves to be worse than I think they are, Florida could pull ahead and not look back.
For some reason I have felt good about this game all season and nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind. Yes, Tennessee’s defense could struggle mightily against their first SEC opponent, but I don’t think Florida’s offense is good enough to really take advantage of us even if we do. I’m hoping to see some more creative blitzing from Pruitt now that we can finally open up the playbook and that should also help to take some pressure off of the secondary. I just don’t see Florida’s offense being able to put up any threatening number of points. The question, then, is whether Tennessee will be able to score points, either. The answer is probably also “no,” but I think they’ll do just enough. Expect a few trick plays from the offense as we’ve been extremely vanilla all season. If one team hits enough home runs or makes too many mistakes, anything can happen. If it sticks to the script I’m expecting, though, I think the Vols win something like 17-13. But, fuck, it’s Tennessee-Florida, so there is no chance in hell it’s anything predictable. Strap in for 60 minutes of chaos and Fuck Florida, Go Vols.
In other Vols news, Rick Barnes landed his biggest splash of his Tennessee career today in Josiah James. James is a 5-star combo guard out of South Carolina who ranks top-15 in the recruiting rankings. Either way, the dude is a real blue-chipper who should provide instant help at what has probably been the Vols’ weakest position the past few seasons. Most importantly, though, was that he picked Tennessee over Duke and Clemson. Most accounts thought James to be a Duke lean for most of his recruitment, then a Clemson lean up until today. Instead, Rick Barnes went toe-to-toe with Coach K for a guy that Duke really wanted and won. I’m not sure anyone knows what the ceiling is right now for Tennessee basketball and that is a damn good place to be.
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