When Tennessee and Florida faced off all the way back in 1916, the Vols could not have known the team they had just shut out 24-0 would evolve into one of its biggest rivals nearly a century later. In fact, UT probably didn’t think much of the Gators at all, considering they won the first 10 meetings between the two teams.
That 10-game win streak is still the longest either has put up against the other, although Florida will have a fantastic chance to move one year closer to matching that mark on Saturday. After taking care of Tyler Bray, Cordarrelle Patterson and the Vols a year ago, Florida ran its winning streak to eight straight against their Rocky Top rivals.
Can a rebuilding team with less talent under center and at the skill positions put a stop to Florida’s winning streak during Week 4 of the 2013 season?
If anything, it will not be easy for first-year coach Butch Jones’ squad to head into The Swamp and pull off the upset. Since committing five turnovers in a tough loss to in-state rival Miami on Sept. 7, the Gators have had a bye week to seethe over their performance. Presumably, a defensive line stacked with Dominique Easley, Jon Bullard, Ronald Powell, Dante Fowler and Leon Orr have all spent two weeks chomping at the bit to make life very difficult for Vols quarterback Justin Worley.
If – and that’s a big “if” – Easley and Co. actually give Worley time to pass, finding an open receiver won’t exactly be easy. Two of Tennessee’s top three receivers, Josh Smith and Marquez North, are freshmen. Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are each considered to be among the top cover cornerbacks in the entire nation – getting open against them will not be easy. True freshman backup Vernon Hargreaves III would be good enough to start at many other places nationwide – he already recorded an interception in each of his first two games. Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs are also elite members of one of the best defensive backfields in the nation.
On the flip side, however, Florida’s receiving corps has struggled mightily as well. Tennessee’s defense was exposed against Oregon in Week 3, but what defense doesn’t get exposed against Oregon? Coach Will Muschamp has had his offensive coordinator, Brent Pease, assimilate defensive back Valdez Showers into the game plan just to give quarterback Jeff Driskel another weapon. Seniors Solomon Patton and Trey Burton are both effective players, but neither have shown the type of game-breaking ability this year that fans caught glimpses of in 2012.
By “glimpses” we really mean “nightmares” for Tennessee fans. In Knoxville a year ago, Burton recorded 91 yards and two scores (his only two rushing touchdowns on the season) on a mere three rushing attempts. He also caught two passes for another 38.
Compounding matters for Driskel and his struggling receivers has been the elite play of Tennessee’s own defensive backfield. Yes, Florida gets the love, but through three games, the Volunteers’ stands at No. 2 in the nation in interceptions with seven. Driskel threw two against Miami, has he been watching enough film in order to make sure he can put the ball into the hands of those in the correct jerseys?
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson led the entire SEC with a whopping 138 tackles in 2012, but only recorded five against Florida last season. Can he ramp up his game as a junior and shut down Burton’s versatile attack?
Can he and fellow backers Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer (both seniors) help their defensive line shut down Florida’s vaunted rushing attack? With a bye week to rest and prepare, sophomore Matt Jones should be primed to star for the Gators in front of what should be a wild home crowd. Can he and the rest of his teammates rebound from the loss at Miami?
Jones and his staff had led the Vols to two wins to open the year. How will his young squad come back after such a bad loss at Oregon?
We don’t know the answers to a lot of these questions, but perhaps you do. Every player and every coach on both sides of the football will be spending the week answering questions from the media, talking to each other, boosters, fans and finally, getting ready for what’s actually important: Saturday.
The time for all the chatter is nearly, finally, at an end. It is time for two rivals to take the field against one another in an annual grudge match that always brings out the very best from both sides.
There’s only one thing left to do: Settle it.