GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If you were in the vicinity of The Swamp on Friday, you may have noticed a different buzz in the air.
There were more people, more noise and more orange than a normal Friday before a Gators home game.
Tennessee comes to town on Saturday for the SEC opener, and as Vols fans began rolling into town, Florida fans began pouring in to greet them – or something like that.
The preseason is officially over for both teams, and Saturday’s winner will be well-positioned in the SEC East race.
The 16th-ranked Gators have won six consecutive games in the series and 15 of 21 meetings since the teams started playing annually in 1990.
While some outsiders may think the rivalry has lost some of its luster because of the Gators’ recent dominance, the scene outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Friday said otherwise.
No one has to tell Gators quarterback John Brantley how important the Tennessee game is.
“Inside that locker room, it definitely has that same intensity that it always has,’’Brantley said.
With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, here are 10 things to keep an eye on in the 41st all-time meeting between Florida and Tennessee:
FIRST REAL TEST
Both teams were solid in their first two games. And both enter their annual clash with 2-0 records for the first time since 2006. In many ways, the Vols and Gators mirror each other.
Both are young teams out to prove themselves on a national stage. Both have young head coaches trying to make their mark on the programs. Around 7:30 on Saturday night we will know a lot more about both teams.
A RAUCOUS CROWD
The Gators always have a significant home-field advantage at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida is 119-16 at home since the start of the 1990 season. However, during back-go-back wins in which the Gators outscored Florida Atlantic and UAB 80-3, the crowd got quiet at times.
Don’t expect that to happen much Saturday. Fans are fired up for the start of the SEC season and the game is sold out after the first two came up a little short at the start of Will Muschamp’s tenure as Florida’s coach.
PRESSURE ON BRAY
One of the most discussed storylines this week is whether the Gators can make Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray uncomfortable when he drops back to pass. Neither Montana nor Cincinnati could, and Bray completed 79 percent of his passes for 698 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Gators will use multiple fronts to try and put some heat on Bray, a sophomore who is making his first start outside of the state of Tennessee.
One player expected to help the Gators’ quest to pressure Bray is sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd. One of Florida’s most popular players in the locker room, Floyd is also one of the Gators’ best athletes.
He missed the first two games of the season due to an NCAA ruling on his eligibility. Floyd’s return should help a pass rush that had just two sacks in the first two games, including none in last week’s win over UAB.
Bray has grabbed most of the headlines in Tennessee’s first two games, joining Peyton Manning as the only Tennessee quarterbacks to ever throw for 400 yards in a game by passing for 405 yards in last week’s 45-23 win over Cincinnati.
Still, the Vols plan to make sure senior running back Tauren Poole continues to play an important role. Poole had his seventh career 100-yard rushing game last week and is expected to get his share of carries Saturday.
FLORIDA’S SECONDARY TAKES TEST
The Gators start a pair of true freshmen in cornerback Marcus Roberson and safety Pop Saunders, and a pair of sophomores in safety Matt Elam and cornerback Cody Riggs. Junior cornerback Jeremy Brown, who has missed the first two games due to a knee injury, remains questionable, so look for Bray to take his shots down the field against a group that was largely untested in the first two games.
Florida’s young secondary is also still looking for its first interception of the season. The Gators have forced just one turnover in two games, a forced fumble by Elam against UAB.
Sophomore running back/receiver Trey Burton missed most of the first game after leaving due to an unspecified injury. He returned against UAB and rushed for 48 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run.
Burton offers a bigger option in the backfield than speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey and with Demps banged up from last week’s game, look for Burton to continue to play an important role in the running game.
Gators quarterback John Brantley has been efficient in the first two games, managing the offense well without having to do too much in the passing game.
That could change against Tennessee. Brantley threw only 19 times against UAB last week, including just one pass in the second half as offensive coordinator Charlie Weis went to the running game. With Tennessee’s defense geared up to stop Rainey and Demps, Brantley might have to look more downfield for receivers Deonte Thompson and Quinton Dunbar. Also, if the Gators go to the air more, look for tight ends Jordan Reed and Gerald Christian to be involved.
Muschamp and Tennessee coach Derek Dooley worked together on Nick Saban’s staff at LSU from 2001-04 and with the Miami Dolphins in 2005. They know each other well and share many of the same coaching philosophies.
You can be sure there will be times in Saturday’s game when Muschamp will expect Dooley to make a certain move and vice versa. We just don’t know yet how much impact their familiarity with one another will have in the outcome.
CAN RAINEY KEEP IT UP?
Rainey is the only player at an FBS school to lead his team in rushing and receiving after two games. Rainey’s versatility and elusiveness is something Dooley said concerns the Vols.
Besides his role on offense, Rainey is also a dangerous punt returner who can impact the game every time he touches the ball. If Demps is ineffective, Rainey may have to play a bigger role than normal.
Tennessee at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium)
Records: Tennessee 2-0 (0-0 in SEC); Florida 2-0 (0-0)
TV/Internet: CBS (affiliates)/CBSSports.com
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (click here for affiliates); SiriusXM Channel 91
Bottom line: This has the ingredients of being a classic Florida-Tennessee matchup that comes down to the final minutes. There are more questions than answers entering the game, and with both teams out to prove something, the winner will leave The Swamp with a huge boost in confidence.