Tennessee Volunteers defense will need to wreak havoc on the Gators offense Saturday, much like they did against Western Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Idahostatesman.com)
The third Saturday in September, what was once known as an intense rivalry between two schools that always had national championship hopes year in and year out will be renewed Saturday. However, as it has been since the turn of the decade, this matchup is nowhere near the BCS radar.
For the 43rd time the Tennessee Volunteers and Florida Gators will face off in their annual meeting that used to decide who would represent the SEC East in the conference championship each year. A once fierce rivalry that was a must see for all the nation has now turned into a rivalry dominated by the rowdy reptiles.
Dating back to 1993 the Gators have won 16 of their last 20 matchups against the Vols, including a current streak of eight consecutive victories over their orange and white rivals.
The last time Tennessee beat Florida George W. Bush was running for re-election, the average price of gasoline was two dollars nationwide, and a non-SEC team won the national championship. To add insult to injury, Tennessee’s average margin of defeat to Florida over the eight-game stretch has been by more than 14 points, including a 39 point loss in 2007.
In order for the Vols to end the streak on Saturday they’ll need much more consistent play from their quarterback, which still hasn’t officially been named for the game. First year head coach Butch Jones declared it an “open position,” in his weekly Monday afternoon press conference after their embarrassing loss to Oregon a week ago.
Current starting quarterback Justin Worley started the season with a solid performance over Austin Peay completing 11-of-13 passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns. Since then he has only completed 24-of-44 passes (54%) for 268 yards and two touchdowns to go with a forced interception in the endzone against Western Kentucky. Jones said Monday he wants to see his quarterback get more aggressive and that whoever has the better week in practice leading up to Saturday’s game, even if it’s a freshman, will start against the Gators.
The good news for Tennessee is the offense they will face is nowhere near as potent as Oregon’s high octane offense, but the bad news is the Gators defense is much more stern.
In two games Florida has given up only 208.5 yards per game, 13.5 points per game, and allowed their opponents to convert only two-of-24 third downs. If Tennessee hopes to have any success against the Gators smothering defense their offensive performance from their last two outings will have to improve dramatically, and that will inevitably come back to how the quarterback, whomever it may be, performs.
Not to be lost in the offensive struggles, the Volunteers defense will also have to be on point again come Saturday. After giving up nearly 700 yards in the program’s worst loss since 1910 against Oregon, the Tennessee defense should be looking for redemption. Jones contributed most of their errors to lack of mental toughness, lack of awareness, and failure to pay attention to the small details against the Ducks.
While Florida may not have an Oregon style offense, they still have the explosiveness and ability to score at will if given the opportunity, and Tennessee gave them plenty in a crushing 37-20 loss in Knoxville when the two teams met last year. The Vols allowed the Gators to score 24 unanswered points en route to victory after sustaining a 20-13 lead midway through the third quarter.
The silver lining for Tennessee’s defense will be their ability to force turnovers. In Florida’s three losses dating back to last season the Gators turned the ball over a combined 14 times, five of those against Miami two weeks ago. They only had 15 turnovers for the entire 2012 season. If the Vols can force them to give up the ball this Saturday history shows their chances of victory greatly increase.
The Vols and Gators are scheduled to kickoff on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. and will be nationally televised on CBS.