Ricky Pearsall runs with the ball after a catch in the Gators football team's 49-7 victory over McNeese on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Molly Kaiser.

Gators Open Conference Play Against Visiting Volunteers

The Florida Gators football team takes on the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday night in their first SEC game of the year at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Both teams won against FCS teams last week, when the Gators beat McNeese State and Tennessee defeated Austin Peay.

The Gators’ matchup against the Vols is sold out, so players expect the crowd to bring the energy for the rivalry game.

UF coach Billy Napier talked about the impact the fans bring to the game.

Big Test for Tennessee

The Volunteers (2-0) finished the 2022-23 season 11-2 after winning the Orange Bowl against Clemson. In his third season, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has turned the Volunteers program around, as the team surpassed the 10-win mark for the first time since 2007.

Heupel said the Gators (1-1) have tons of talent on both sides of the ball and understands this game will be a test for his team. He praised the Gators defense and its ability to stop the run up front. The matchup between the Gators defensive front and the Volunteers running game is an aspect to watch.

Vols running backs Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright return after having solid years last season. Wright put up 875 rushing yards, averaging six yards per carry, while Small had 734 yards on 4.7 yards per carry. So far, both running backs have been as advertised. Wright is averaging 9.3 yards per carry and Small is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Stopping the Tennessee run game will be important for the Gators.

UT senior quarterback Joe Milton III has put up 429 yards with four passing touchdowns in two games. Although he has completed 66.7% of his passes, he has still received criticism for his accuracy by some in the media. Milton will have his chance Saturday to prove those critics wrong.

Can the Gators keep the Streak Going?

Florida seems to have Tennessee’s number when the game is played in The Swamp. The Gators have not lost against the Volunteers at home since 2003 and have won nine straight home games in this series. Florida, however, comes into this game as the underdogs.

Florida improved in the running game in its last game compared to the first-game loss at Utah. The Gators rushed for 327 yards against McNeese State. If the Gators want to pull off the upset, they’ll have to continue to find dominance on the ground.

The Gators also return their two leading rushers from last season. Montrell Johnson Jr. put up 841 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2022, while Trevor Etienne averaged 6.1 yards per carry with 719 yards. Both will take on the main part of the running game with Treyaun Webb as the third back. Napier praised Webb for his toughness and effort during the game against McNeese State.

Florida gets a huge boost on the offensive line. Center Kingsley Eguakun is on the depth chart to start. The offensive line will be an important part of the season after losing four of five starters from a year ago.

Quarterback Graham Mertz will make his first SEC start and expectations are high in this rivalry game. Mertz has done a fine job with a 73.8% completion percentage, 526 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception. Similar to Milton, Mertz came into this season with plenty of questions to answer after transferring from Wisconsin. Mertz understands the importance of this rivalry matchup and what the team will need from him.

Kickoff in The Swamp is set for 7 p.m. ESPN has television coverage and it can be heard on ESPN 98.1-FM/850-AM WRUF.

About Matt Rothmann

Check Also

Pat Dooley’s High Five: Players Missing From SEC Media Days

As most of you know, SEC Media Week starts Monday or as I liked to …