Each week, the two sports editors and football beat writers, Josh Lane and Ethan Stone, give their keys and predictions for Tennessee’s weekly matchup. This week, the Vols travel to Florida for their first road test of the season.
Let’s talk about the Gators.
1. Stop the run
Florida will be Tennessee’s first real test against a legitimate run game. The Vols’ have been one of the nations’ top run defenses through three games, but it came against weak running teams. Florida and its five rushers with at least 99 yards will prove if Tennessee’s run defense is for real, or expose it.
Florida’s top-2 rushers are its quarterbacks, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. Malik Davis is the Gator’s leading running back (212), with Dameon Pierce and Nay’Quan Wright both hovering around the 100-yard mark. The five-headed attack can pound the ball down Tennessee’s throat at any time, as the Gators average a ridiculous 7.6 yards per attempt.
Another factor in Tennessee’s ability to stop the run is the health of its defensive line. LaTrell Bumphus, Da’Jon Terry and linebacker Juwan Mitchell were all inactive against Tennessee Tech. Bumphus and Terry will boost the depth of Tennessee’s D-line if they are healthy, but losing Mitchell for a second-straight week would be a big blow.
2. Keep the turnovers coming
It took three games for Tennessee to force a turnover, but when they finally did, it was in bunches.
The Vols picked off TTU’s quarterbacks four times in the win, as Jaylen McCollough, Alontae Taylor, Solon Page III and Damarion McDonald all hauled in an interception in the blowout win.
The theme with nearly everything around Tennessee this week has been that its success was against a bad Tech team, so it remains to be seen if it will translate against the Vols’ first ranked opponent of the season.
Emory Jones will test Tennessee’s secondary that has allowed the second most passing yards per game in the SEC (244 yards), but Jones has a tendency to turn the ball over if the Vols can make him.
1. Come out to compete in the second quarter
Most of Tennessee’s struggles this season have come in the second quarter. The Vols have been outscored 33-24 in this phase of the game, opposed to 38-0 in the first.
Sure, it’s a change in pace from last year’s problem — an inability to play relevant football coming out of halftime — but it’s obviously not something the Vols can afford against a stout Florida squad that just about took Alabama to overtime.
This isn't exactly a tell-all stat about a team’s competence, but Florida has outscored opponents 27-0 in the second quarter, conversely.
2. Force Emory Jones to throw the ball
With Anthony Richardson’s health in question, Gators quarterback Emory Jones is likely to get the start — or at least substantial playing time.
This could be a good or bad thing for Vols fans. For one, Jones has 5 interceptions on the year and has struggled to give the Gators a legit threat through the air. On the other hand, it means Florida will likely plan to run the ball down Tennessee’s throat more than they would have with Richardson, the better passer of the two.
The key is limiting the damage of Florida’s violent rushing attack. If Florida is going to beat Tennessee, the Vols need to make them do it through the air against Theo Jackson and Jaylen McCollough, who are having excellent 2021 campaigns thus far.
Spread: Florida -18.5
Tennessee hasn’t won at Florida since 2003, when I was just two years old. The Vols have had much better teams over the years than they do now, and they have yet to pull it off.
Josh Heupel always seems to have his team in the right mental place, but I don’t think it will fully translate in front of a raucous crowd at the Swamp. I expect to see a fair amount of false starts and the sort from the Vols.
Florida is just too good an opponent. The Gators gave Alabama a run for its money last week, and after the close loss, they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. The Vols will make it closer than they have in the past, but Florida still takes this one.
Florida 28, Tennessee 20
As much as I’d like to be the guy that picks Tennessee to upset the Gators Saturday, it’s a long shot at best. The Gators are really talented, and they’re at home against a Tennessee team still searching for an identity under a first-year head coach.
I’ll give Tennessee this — the Vols will lead at some point past the first quarter. Whether Hooker or Milton starts at quarterback is besides the point, this Tennessee team will likely have no problem finding the endzone in the early stages.
Florida is coming off a major performance against Alabama, and Tennessee just seems primed to give them a bit of a run when they’re expecting Tennessee to just roll over. The Gators are more experienced, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this is a closer affair than what people expect.
Florida 31, Tennessee 21