GatorZone.com Senior Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – This Florida-Tennessee clash has potential to be a good one. Both teams are ranked, something that hasn’t happened in the series in five years. Both are unbeaten. And both are ready to climb back to the top of the SEC East.
The winner on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium gets a leg up in that race.
The buzz around this game is loud compared to recent years. Both teams look better than a year ago. Are they good enough to win the SEC East? We could find a clue to that answer on Saturday.
What we know now is that the game has enough juice that ESPN decided to send “College GameDay” to Knoxville for the first time in eight years. The lights will be bright come kickoff time.
The Gators are coming off a 20-17 win over Texas A&M in the biggest SEC win of Will Muschamp’s young tenure as Florida’s coach. The Vols opened the season with a win over N.C. State and then cruised past Georgia State a week ago, moving into the Top 25 for the first time since the 20008 season.
Tennessee fans are so pumped for the game – and of snapping Florida’s seven-game win streak against the Vols – the Knoxville Police Department opted to warn fans that they could face serious punishment for storming the field on Saturday night.
The matchup might not have the storylines of the Spurrier-Fulmer quipfests or Wuerffel-Manning shootouts of the 1990s, but for the first time in a long time, people are talking about the game like it matters outside Gainesville and Knoxville.
That’s the way it should be.
Here are 10 things to watch in Saturday’s game:
BRAY’S BIG PLAYS
The Gators know all about Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray’s right arm. Bray threw a career-high 48 times in Florida’s 33-23 win last year.
Working in a no-huddle offense, Bray has been excellent in the first two games, passing for 643 yards and six touchdowns. Bray is completing 76.2 percent of his passes that are 15 yards or longer, and five of his touchdown throws are for more than 15 yards.
Expect to see five and six defensive backs on the field for most of the game for the Gators as they look to force Bray to throw under the coverage and avoid being beaten downfield.
THE GATORS’ GROWL
Florida is coming off a big SEC road win and would like nothing more than to spoil Tennessee’s Saturday night. The Gators have dealt with a lot of adversity the past couple of seasons. Now we get a chance to see how they respond to success.
This is an opportunity for the Gators to build on the momentum they created with the win at Texas A&M and perhaps solidify their status as a contender in the SEC East race with Georgia and South Carolina.
When Bray does look to make a play, he often throws in the direction of wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter blew his knee out against the Gators in last year’s game but is back and tied a school record with three touchdown catches in Tennessee’s win over Georgia State.
Meanwhile, Patterson immediately established himself as a big-play threat. The junior-college transfer has 360 all-purpose yards in the first two games and is a threat in the passing game and run game.
One of the more telling notes in this series is the team that has gained the most rushing yards has won 20 of the last 22 meetings. That has been the case during Florida’s seven-game win streak against the Vols.
Florida has averaged 154.7 yards rushing during the streak; Tennessee has managed only 46.4 yards.
Gators senior running back Mike Gillislee has looked sharp as the featured back. He leads the SEC with 231 yards rushing. Despite straining a groin last week at Texas A&M, Gillislee is expected to play. Meanwhile, the Vols’ tandem of Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane has combined for 224 yards rushing to complement Bray’s work through the air.
Gators sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel was 13 of 16 for 162 yards in his first career start, efficiently managing the offense and avoiding costly turnovers.
If Driskel can avoid some of the eight sacks he took against the Aggies and make a play or two down the field in the passing game, the Gators will be happy. Oh, and avoid throwing an interception for the third consecutive game.
GATORS’ O-LINE VS. VOLS’ D-LINE
In fairness to Florida’s offensive line, several of the sacks taken by Driskel were on him. He admitted he held onto the ball too long and needs to get rid of it quicker when the pocket collapses.
Still, the Gators must protect Driskel and give him time to make plays in the passing game to help their chances against the Vols. Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore, a junior-college transfer, had a sack against Georgia State. Sentimore, 6-foot-6, 377-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, tackle Maurice Couch and defensive end Jacques Smith are a physical front and give first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri a variety of looks.
Florida lost a pair of starters to injury in the win at Texas A&M: linebacker Jelani Jenkins (thumb) and defensive back Cody Riggs (foot). Neither will play Saturday.
A year ago that would have been a major blow to the Gators. However, with more depth on both sides of the ball, Muschamp is confident in true freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison and sophomore defensive back Pop Saunders.
Saunders started nine games as a freshman and Morrison had six tackles against the Aggies.
This series has had its share of high-scoring games. The Gators would prefer a lower-scoring game like their win at Texas A&M.
Tennessee has racked up more than 500 yards of total offense in back-to-back games for the first time in 12 years. If the game turns into a shootout, Bray would seemingly have an edge over the inexperienced Driskel.
No surprise here that Florida has dominated the turnover battle during its seven-game win streak. The Gators forced two turnovers in the season opener but did not come up with one against the Aggies.
Creating more turnovers has been a focal point for the Gators since finishing last season minus-12 in turnover margin. With Bray expected to throw 30 or more times, Florida’s defensive backs will have their chances.
Muschamp and Tennessee coach Derek Dooley are former colleagues on Nick Saban’s staff at LSU and for a season with the Miami Dolphins.
Dooley came up the ranks as an offensive coach and Muschamp on defense. They know each other’s philosophies well, so execution and adjustments are going to be vital with so much familiarity between the two.
No. 18 Florida (2-0, 1-0 SEC) at No. 23 Tennessee (2-0, 0-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, 6 p.m. (Neyland Stadium)
Records: Florida 2-0, 1-0 SEC; Tennessee 2-0, 0-0
TV: ESPN – Brad Nessler (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)
Bottom line: The Gators have another chance to make a statement on the road. A win on Saturday would be a momentum builder like Florida hasn’t had in a while. To leave Rocky Top with a victory, it will likely come down to Florida’s defense clamping down like it did at Texas A&M. Can the Gators do it again? If so, expect a lively Swamp when the Gators return home to face Kentucky.