On Saturday, the Florida Gators will be taking on the Tennessee Volunteers for the 42nd time in what has become one of the biggest rivalries in the nation. The two teams first met on the gridiron all the way back in 1919. Since then, the game has featured some of football’s biggest names. It has featured national champions, future NFL talent and several of the best coaches to ever patrol the sidelines. It has also featured Peyton Manning in his most ineffective state — Manning failed to beat the Gators in four years.
Florida will be going for its ninth consecutive win over the Vols in front of what promises to be a truly raucous home environment.
Will the Gators get out alive, or will Tennessee pull off the upset? We’ll be watching the following five, potentially game-altering factors; whomever dominates these facets of Saturday’s game may just be standing victorious when the final whistle blows on this SEC East showdown.
1. Which young coach brings the energy?
Tennessee was lambasted by Oregon in Week 3, but there is absolutely no denying the buzz first-year coach Butch Jones has brought to Knoxville and to this football program.
Everyone knows what Florida head coach Will Muschamp, aka Coach Boom, is all about in The Swamp.
Muschamp’s teams tend to win ugly, but that may not be easy against a well-disciplined Jones’ squad. We’ll be watching to see whether Jones has his team ready to take down the mighty Gators in a hellish road environment, or if Muschamp’s team is properly re-energized following a brutal loss to Miami two weeks ago.
2. Who will win the turnover battle?
Speaking of that loss at Miami, Florida would have, in all likelihood, taken home the “W” had it not been for a dreadful five turnovers. Running back Matt Jones, tight end Trey Burton and quarterback Jeff Driskel all lost fumbles. Driskel also tossed two interceptions. Conversely, the team only picked off Miami’s Stephen Morris once.
If Tennessee has shown the nation anything through its first three games, it is that Jones’ squad is going to be as ball-hawking as ever. Paced by Brian Randolph’s two picks, the Volunteers have intercepted a whopping seven passes on the year. That number is good for second in the nation behind Northwestern’s eight.
The Vols opened up the quarterback competition this week and Jones has stated that whoever is the most prepared will start against Florida. Justin Worley, the starter to date, has only thrown one interception on the season.
If Driskel can actually find his receivers instead of the guys in checkerboard orange-and-white, Florida could put Tennessee away. If he continues to give the ball to the other team, however, things could get sticky in The Swamp.
3. Will youth be served in the passing game?
This is very closely tied to Driskel and Worley’s potential interception total. A year ago, Tennessee boasted what was arguably the most talented receiving duo in the nation in Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. Both young stars are playing on Sundays this year, however, and have been replaced largely by freshmen.
Jones’ first recruiting class netted him star recruits Marquez North and Josh Smith. Smith currently ranks first on the team with 96 receiving yards. North is third with 69, and sophomore Johnathon Johnson is sandwiched in-between with 72. None of those yardage totals turn heads, but one or all will have to step up against Florida’s unbelievable defensive backfield.
Cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both future early-round draft picks, and safeties Jaylen Watkins, Cody Riggs and Brian Poole are all elite.
On the other side of the ball, Driskel has been finding senior Quinton Dunbar more than anyone, but fans would love to see true freshmen Ahmad Fullwood and Demarcus Robinson worked into the game plan a bit more.
4. Can Florida dominate in the trenches?
With Dominique Easley, Ronald Powell, Jon Bullard, Dante Fowler and Leon Orr patrolling the defensive line, the Gators have to shut down Tennesse’s rushing attack and force their QB to throw to those inexperienced young receivers.
The Vols boast not one but two very good running backs in Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Both upperclassmen backs are averaging nearly six rushing yards per attempt. Jones wants to lean heavily on these two guys, but Florida has the defensive weaponry to shut them down.
Like Jones, Muschamp wants to win games on the strength of his rushing attack. Matt Jones, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore, is a star in the making. There are two questions here, however: (1) Has he finally recovered from a viral infection that kept him out of Florida’s Week 1 win over Toledo and forced him to play rusty against Miami and (2) Who will be blocking in front of him?
Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson is a tackling machine. With Jon Halapio and Chaz Green out, as well as a questionable Tyler Moore, Muschamp will once again have to shuffle around his offensive line.
Will the new faces be effective? We have no idea, but we’re curious to find out.
5. Will The Swamp awaken?
Florida fans have a reputation for being some of the most supportive in the nation, but also tend to panic on the drop of a dime. We’re not trying to hate – UF fans will admit that any loss generally sends them into a tizzy that most other fan bases simply wouldn’t understand.
Such is the pressure to win in Gainesville each and every week. Many were extremely disappointed in the team’s showing in Miami, and with good reason. Our very own Jonathan Bass wrote an excellent piece on why the loss hurt quite a bit more than usual.
We are curious to see if a packed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium gets loud in support of its team – especially if Florida struggles early to a highly motivated Tennessee bunch.