After flying high to start the 2014, my predictions see the Gators suddenly stalling in rarefied air and falling to an Alabama team that- spoiler alert- will in fact be playing in the new four team playoff.
But what does that mean for Florida?
Well, it puts them at a crossroads. Sitting at 3-1, Florida’s season can go two ways from here: they can beat Tennessee and jump right back on track, or they can lose to the Vols for the first time in a decade and fall off a proverbial cliff. Which will it be? Time to find out…
2013: 5-7 (3-5 SEC)
Last Meeting (2013): Florida 31, Tennessee 17
All Time Series: Florida 24, Tennessee 19
Coach: Butch Jones, 2nd year (5-7)
Who Are You?
The Tennessee Volunteers once were, believe it or not, the biggest rival of the Florida Gators. Once upon a time, Florida and Tennessee would meet every year on the third Saturday in September in a locked game slot on CBS at 3:30. Hard to believe now, but these were once THE teams of the SEC East. The idea was to inaugurate the SEC season with a bang, by pitting two bitter rivals against each other in a game that both had to have. Win, and you were immediately in the driver’s seat in the SEC East, and better yet, your biggest threat in the divisional race has a loss and has the tiebreaker working against them. Lose, however…
But those days are over. Both teams (first Tennessee, then Florida) have fallen on some especially rough times lately. The Vols are on their fourth head coach since 2008 (five, if you count Jim Chaney, who served as the interim head coach for UT’s season finale against Kentucky in 2012) and none of the last three have had much success at all, though I will point out that Tennessee did succeed in ruining South Carolina’s season last year with a 23-21 victory on Rocky Top.
Which is why I’m going to point to this game, as I do with one game a year, as Florida’s TRAP GAME. I correctly predicted that Georgia Southern would be a trap game last year, and I’m picking Tennessee this year for one of the same reasons- even though they may not be as talented as Florida, they’re desperate. They’re grasping at straws for something, anything positive to relaunch their program. A win over South Carolina last year was not enough; that was no more than a child’s Tylenol for a very sick program. A victory over a Florida team that’s won nine straight over them would be just the tonic.
Returning Starters: 5
Justin Worley appears set to take the reins at QB for good now, and he reminds me, to a degree, of Stephen Garcia: he can be really, really good, and he can be really, really bad. Like Garcia, he has the ability to make big plays. And sometimes, those “plays” are good for the other team, like the two interceptions he threw against Florida last year and the six additional picks he threw in the rest of the season. But Butch Jones has no better alternative; backups Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs are even more error prone than he is, so it seems like this position is settled: Worley it is.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, the quarterback position is the one with the most experience. The Vols may have the youngest overall offense in the SEC, and they may have to rely on several pieces of their 2014 recruiting class to step up right away on the offensive side of the ball. Highly touted incoming freshman Jalen Hurd figures to get tons of carries in the running game alongside senior Marlin Lane, and JUCO transfer Von Pearson won the starting slot receiver position. The Vols do return three receivers from a year ago in Marquez North, Jason Croom and Josh Smith, but the three of them combined for less than 1,000 yards through the air last year.
But the real nightmare for offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is up front. Tennessee must replace its entire offensive line. Although when you think about it, that might not actually be such a bad thing, as the Vols’ line play last year was pathetic at best. Still, breaking in five new starters in the offensive line is a situation most coaches in America want to avoid.
Offensive Grade: C
There’s talent, and there’s some promise at the skill positions. But the offensive line better grow up real fast if this team wants to move the ball.
Returning Starters: 5
The front seven is, as a whole a mess. Only one starter (LB AJ Johnson) in the first two levels of the defense is back, and Butch Jones is dealing with a coach’s worst nightmare: having to replace his entire offensive and defensive fronts in a conference where controlling the line of scrimmage is of vital importance. Some of the positions have been filled with names (Owen Williams and Danny O’Brian at DT, Jordan Williams at DE) but not with any production aside from key reserve Curt Maggitt.
That’s not to say there aren’t any bright spots for this front seven. Johnson has showed some flashes throughout his first three years at Tennessee, and Maggitt has impressed coaches with his pass rushing ability from his linebacker position enough to consider moving him down to a hybrid rush-end position. If defensive coordinator John Jancek decides against that and instead opts to keep him at weak side linebacker, Corey Vereen will play that hybrid role.
The secondary is definitely Tennessee’s strength on defense. There’s a lot of competition back there, but the difference is, it’s among players who have had some production. Brian Randolph will battle incumbent Devaun Swafford for the strong safety spot, while incoming freshman Emmanuel Moseley has already snatched Justin Coleman’s spot at cornerback, forcing Jancek to slide Coleman over to nickel back. LaDarrel McNeil and Cam Sutton return at their free safety and corner positions, respectively, to round out the experience in the Vols’ defensive backfield.
Defensive Grade: B-
Tennessee’s defensive backs could pick off a pass or two. Also, while the line is young, there are some talented players, including Curt Maggitt and AJ Johnson. As a whole, though, this defense is too shaky to fear.
Florida Key: Offense
Run the ball right down Tennessee’s throat and challenge the Vols to win the battle at the point of attack. Florida should dominate both sides of the line of scrimmage, and that includes opening up huge holes for Kelvin Taylor to run. Then, once the UT defense is gassed, Kurt Roper can open up the offense on the Vols and let Jeff Driskel finish them off (and, you know, get revenge on the team that ended his season last year).
Florida Key: Defense
If the Gators can bust through the middle and make Justin Worley’s life hell, they might shut Tennessee out entirely. But I’ll settle for rattling him enough to force an interception or two. Loading up the box is probably a good idea, though, since all Florida has to do in order to shut down Tennessee’s entire offense is set up camp in their backfield. And considering how weak (or at least inexperienced) this offensive line is, it shouldn’t even be that hard.
Key Matchup: Tennessee offensive line vs. Florida defensive line
Yes, the inverse of this matchup is also very important. But Tennessee has no chance- repeat, no chance- to win this game if they can’t stem the tide at the point of attack when they have the ball. Worley is going to have to make good decisions in order for Tennessee to pull off the upset. Decision making is something he struggles with to begin with- even with a clean pocket. Not giving him any time to make decisions will compound that problem, and turn it into a nightmare for the Vols. If the Volunteers cannot consistently give Worley three or more seconds to throw, they will lose the game. Guaranteed. Or your money back.
What Does This Game Mean?
Where do I start?
Do I begin with the fact that Florida has not lost to the Volunteers since I was in elementary school? The fact that Will Muschamp enters this season with a seat that’s hotter than the south Florida sun, and losing this game will almost certainly get him fired? How about the gauntlet of an SEC schedule Florida was dealt, and that losing this game all but eradicates any possibility at a trip to Atlanta- which is a long shot to begin with?
This is, without a doubt, a game of enormous importance. Forget the rivalry implications and the fact that the Gators are flirting with a double digit win streak. If Florida loses to a Tennessee squad that would love to go 6-6 this year, Will Muschamp is finished. And rightfully so.
At this point, a loss to Tennessee wouldn’t merely be a coup de grace. It would be the equivalent of setting off dynamite inside a decaying horse’s mouth. Losing to the Vols would be so far past the breaking point of the vast majority of fans that I guarantee you that not only would the Swamp be empty for the next game- and would remain empty until Jeremy Foley hired a new coach- but that Florida fans would protest in a way I’m afraid to imagine. The inscription on the tombstone of Will Muschamp’s Florida career is about 95% typed up already: 0-3 against Georgia, lost to Georgia Southern and Vandy at home, and has a worse record than Ron Zook. All that’s missing, in Foley’s eyes, is one more thing to go wrong that two years ago was inconceivable. A loss to Tennessee, which would put Florida at 3-2 with Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and FSU still to play, figures to do the trick.
A win, on the other hand, could go a long way in resurrecting Florida fans’ (well… short term) faith in Will Muschamp, not to mention his job security. Getting to 4-1 to start the season gives the Gators at least a fighting chance to win the SEC East, not to mention post a respectable record. It wouldn’t be the kind of win that would allow Muschamp to keep his job if Florida slumped to 6-6, but it would be the win Muschamp needs to make fans forget about Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt- for another week- anyway- and focus on the 2014 team rather than harping on the 2013 team and all its misadventures.
So yeah, I guess you could call this a big game.
Florida’s more talented, more experienced and, despite what many Gator fans feel about Will Muschamp, better coached. And yet I’m extremely nervous about this game on Rocky Top for a reason I can’t explain. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that last year’s 5-7 Tennessee team knocked off an 11-2 South Carolina team on Rocky Top. Maybe it’s because last year’s game against Tennessee was basically even after Justin Worley entered the game. Maybe it’s because under Muschamp, the Gators have done an excellent job at killing themselves with penalties and turnovers. Or maybe it’s just because upsets tend to happen in college football when you least expect them, and on paper, you shouldn’t expect one in this game.
What I do expect is a sloppy game by both squads. The gigantic stakes for both teams, instead of bringing out the best in both teams like they do for great teams, will instead bring out the worst in both teams. I’m prepared for a replay of last year’s game, where both teams hand out goodies in bunches. Florida’s defense is going to take advantage of the Vols’ weak offensive line and get a ton of pressure on Worley, making him both turn the ball over several times and regret the day he was born. On the other side of the ball, Florida’s offense will revert to old form, and do what they’ve always done under Muschamp- beat themselves up with costly errors.
So who wins?
It’s a tossup, in all honesty. But at the end of the day, I give the nod to the Gators because of the superior talent and experience. Florida will turn the ball over a bunch, but just like they did last year, the Florida defense will bail them out by forcing some right back. The last image we will have of this game will be a good one, and that’s all that matters in the record book. A rattled Jeff Driskel (who, trust me, will have better days) heroically drives the Gators down the field (yes, like Tennessee’s fight song) for the winning field goal to clinch the dime- win number ten in a row over Tennessee- and save Will Muschamp’s job. For now.
Projection: Florida 20, Tennessee 17