Judging from the fact that Florida football has beaten Tennessee nine straight times, it would only be natural to think that the Gators should be favored in their match up against the Vols today in Knoxville.
Well they’re not.
At last look, Tennessee was favored by three points.
One reason as to why Tennesee might be considered a favorite is because they’ve played better than Florida has, despite having a worse record than the Orange and Blue. In their first SEC game of the season, the Vols pushed Georgia to the brink only losing by three points. Tennessee also leads the nation in third down defense, only allowing opponents to convert 21 percent of the time. Converting on third down has been one of Florida’s biggest struggles on offense this year, only converting 34 percent of their third downs.
Gator offensive coordinator Kurt Roper says the struggles on third down don’t all fall on quarterback Jeff Driskel’s shoulders.
“I think Jeff is a talented football player. We went back and watched all our third downs; he’s had 37 third downs in drop back pass. We felt like eight of them, we needed to be critical of him. The other 29 were either good decisions or we didn’t make the play.”
Driskel said during the bye week, the offense worked on getting better in third down situations.
“We struggled, we had some drops, had some missed throws there, some busted assignments [referring to the Alabama game]. It’s something that we worked on. But it’s just going to come down to execution. We’re not going to change what we’re doing schematically. We just gotta execute. Throwing and catching is what we worked on.”
Another area the Gators need to improve in is the secondary. The Florida defense got torched in the Alabama game, surrendering 672 yards, which is the most in program history.
“Tackling, block the feet and eye control, those are the fundamentals for defense. With all the different schemes and positions, it all comes down to that – always,” Gator defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “Those are things we’ve always done well. Up to this point and last week, there were times we didn’t do it very well.”
Today, the Florida defense will face another tough SEC quarterback in Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley. The 6’4” senior has thrown for over 200 yards a game in all four games the Vols’ have played this season. He ranks seventh in the SEC in passing yards, while Driskel is ranked 11th. Vols head coach Butch Jones says Worley has developed into a leader on the team.
“His toughness has been outstanding. We’re going to need it again this Saturday. He’s invested in this football team and our football team looks to him for leadership. They believe in him.”
Tennessee features tall wide receivers in Marquez North and Jason Croom both of whom with be tough match ups for the young Florida secondary. Muschamp knows it will be crucial to limit their opportunities in the passing game.
“Each week presents it’s own set of challenges and in doing so you gotta match up outside with a 6’4″ Marquez North and 6’5″ [Jason] Croom. One of the best things Justin Worley does is throw the deep ball, so you gotta pick your spots to pressure. But you also need to win with four rushing. So we’ll try and stay multiple in what we do there.”
Once again the Gators won’t be at full strength for the game this weekend. Freshman running back Brandon Powell will miss Saturday’s conference game due to a hamstring injury. Florida will also be without defensive tackle Leon Orr due to a knee injury. As a result of Orr’s absence, Jonathan Bullard and Joey Ivie will play more inside, while Bryan Cox will play outside. Also, linebacker Michael Taylor is listed as questionable to doubtful with a swollen knee.
However, the Gators will have offensive lineman D.J. Humphries for this weekend’s SEC contest. Humphries has missed the last two games because of a high ankle sprain in Florida’s season opener against Eastern Michigan. One person who is more than happy to see Humphries back is center Max Garcia.
“I love having D.J. on the field. Just having his energy really lifts us all up. You can tell when he was out; during practice we just didn’t have that fire that he brings every day. So, I’m just really excited to have him back.”
Neyland Stadium is said to be the loudest stadium in the SEC, but linebacker Jarrad Davis is looking forward to hopefully silencing the “Rocky Top Rowdies.”
“I heard Tennessee is like the loudest crowd, loudest stadium in the SEC. So I’m really excited to get up there and feel that and just feel everybody, the whole environment. I’m just really excited myself to get up there.”
The Gators and Volunteers both know how pivotal this game is. The only thing that remains to be seen is who wants it more.
We’ll find out at high noon when these two SEC rivals face off in a raucous Neyland Stadium.
You can catch the First And Ten pre-game show beginning at 9 AM on ESPN 850 WRUF.
For audio of the above quotes, click below: