Long, long ago, Florida's programs and tickets used "The _____ Game" as titles. I guess that's good enough for our season preview. Neil's writing them, and they'll run once a week on Thursdays — unless the entire SB Nation network has server troubles.
2012 Season: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
Coach: Butch Jones, first season
Last Result vs. Florida: Florida 37, Tennessee 20
Series Record: Florida 23, Tennessee 19
Game Date: Saturday, September 21, 2013
Game Location: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville
Who Are You?
Well, before I get started, perhaps I should point out that the Tennessee Volunteers, once a perennial powerhouse, are no longer threatening enough to be considered a rival. (The opinions of this poster are his own, and not reflective of Alligator Army as a whole. — Andy) It's not so much that the Gators have beaten them eight straight times as much as it is the even more gut-wrenching fact (for Vols fans) that Florida has beaten them 21 out of the past 27 times. Even before the eight-game winning streak, Florida was on a 13-6 run in the series. The sting of the six losses Tennessee has handed the Gators since the end of the Vietnam War are already a distant memory as the Volunteers desperately search for a winning formula against the Gators.
I know I might get some flak for this characterization, so I'll explain. In my book, a series is a rivalry if it meets all of the following three criteria: Both teams have a winning history (check), the joy of bragging rights to other fans outweighs or is at least even to the game's importance in the standings (no), and both teams have to have had significant winning streaks (no).
The Vols do claim more national championships than the Gators (though, um, some of those are debatable). However, this is a game that the 2013 Gators cannot lose because of the damage it would do in the standings, not because of all the trash we'd get from Vols fans. They'd certainly be ecstatic to rub in their victory, but it took them nine tries to do it. Give us your best shot, Vols fans. In addition, while Tennessee did win the first 10 games of the series, those wins came over a period of nearly 40 years. Meeting that infrequently doesn't really qualify a series as a rivalry, and, since then, the only team going on big winning streaks is Florida. Since Urban Meyer came aboard in 2005, you could make the argument with a straight face that South Carolina is a bigger rival. At least Florida fans can actually remember the losses the Gamecocks have dealt the Gators since then.
Rivalry or not, though, this is a team that Florida needs to be wary of. If the Gators are, they'll handle them with relative ease. Dealing with first-year coaches is always tricky, but it's not something that Will Muschamp can't figure out (ask James Franklin). It gets easier when Butch Jones has close to nothing to work with. Gone are QB Tyler Bray, and his two big play targets, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Tennessee's best possession receiver from 2012, Zach Rogers, is gone as well. Tight end Mychal Rivera is gone. That was the entire offense, which was the lone bright spot of this team a year ago, and that should pretty much sum up how weak this Tennessee team appears to be heading into 2013.
As mentioned above, the Volunteers lose their entire passing game, and thus, the only piece of the puzzle that even kept them in games last year. Justin Worley appears to be Tyler Bray's replacement, and he can sling it a bit, but who's going to replace those big-time receivers? When your top returning receiver is technically a running back (Marlin Lane), you know your passing game is in trouble. That said, the running game could surprise some people, with Lane and Raijon Neal both returning, and four of the five offensive linemen from last year also returning.
Tennessee's Offensive Strategy
Unless the one of Volunteers' unknown receivers explodes in one of the first two games, like Patterson did last year against N.C. State, the Volunteers will have no choice but to run the ball. They'll do that behind what should be the strength of their team — the offensive line. There isn't really much to say here, other than that new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian might have a trick play here or there saved up for this game that the Gators should be wary of. Maybe a little play-action here or there if the running game gets going, but I would expect an almost unhealthy amount of running plays — about 65-70 percent of the snaps.
And if Florida gets a lead? Tennessee might be in serious trouble.
Florida's Defensive Strategy
It's not really very hard for Will Muschamp to draw up a defensive game plan for this game. He knows Tennessee doesn't have a passing game — not yet, anyway. And should they somehow develop one in their first two games, he's one of the best at making adjustments. So he's going to stack the box, block off the running lanes, and dare Worley (and what army?) to beat his defense through the air. The skinny: Florida's not backing off and playing much zone coverage. They're coming for that offensive line, and for Worley, all day long.
Tennessee Offensive Grade: C+
The Volunteers' front seven should be much improved this year, with Curt Maggitt coming back from injury and A.J. Johnson starring in the middle. Jacques Smith and Channing Fugate also return to round out an experienced linebacker corps. But the rest of their defense has heavy personnel losses to deal with, and there isn't a single player on this team who had more than two sacks last year. That makes the defensive line a question mark at best, but that's still better than what you could say about their secondary. With the future of their best defensive back, Eric Gordon, still up in the air, there is approximately no experience back there. There is potential, yes (Byron Moore, LaDarrelle McNeil), but little experience.
Tennessee's Defensive Strategy
The only thing this Tennessee defense appears to be capable of is stopping the run, so that's exactly what Butch Jones is going to try to do. Since Florida's passing game hasn't exactly been explosive under Jeff Driskel, Jones will take his chances and pray his defensive backfield bails him out. Much like Florida, Tennessee will load the box, stuff the gaps, and dare Driskel to beat them by throwing the ball. The difference is that Driskel is extremely athletic, and can get away from pressure, which presents a whole new problem for the Vols. Tennessee will have to send rushers wide, but this opens up the middle of the field for Florida to run. Watch for defensive coordinator John Jancek to send five up the middle, and one off each side on a high percentage of the plays.
Florida's Offensive Strategy
While Tennessee's defense's strength is stopping the running game, that doesn't mean the Vols can stop the Gators' ground attack. Brent Pease will sit back and confidently draw up a run-heavy game plan, and stick with it unless the Vols prove that they actually can stop it. That said, this would be a game in which Florida's offense really shows its hand. If there are going to be changes made to the general offensive philosophy, you will see them debuted in the Miami game; against Tennessee, they wouldn't be experiments, but staples.
So look for Pease to bring back some of the successful plays from a year ago — the play-action deep bomb to the fullback that worked against Texas A&M, the Solomon Patton reverse, and the Trey Burton Wildcat package — not for a play or two, but maybe once every two drives or so. The idea is to run this young Tennessee defense around, and see how well Jones' conditioning program worked.
Tennessee Defensive Grade: C
Tennessee Overall Grade: C-
Florida's special teams vs. Tennessee's special teams. Ever since Urban Meyer appeared on the scene in 2005, special teams has played a huge role in this series. In 2005, a parade of special teams blunders led to three Florida field goals in a 16-7 win. Then, Brandon James proceeded to terrorize the Vols for each of the next four years. A fake punt directly spurred the Gators on to victory in 2010, Chris Rainey's blocked punt and Caleb Sturgis' four field goals were the difference in a 33-23 win in 2011, and, even last year, a missed PAT was followed by a 24-0 run by the Gators to close out the game. Think special teams might play a role in this game, too?
Knoxville continues to look more like Grand Central Station, considering the way coaches keep coming and going. The newest head man, Butch Jones, got to watch one of Florida's 10 best teams ever beat up on his future team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Now he gets to actually face what could be another top-10 Florida squad, with the result expected to be much the same as that Sugar Bowl. If 2012 was any indication, Tennessee can't pass the ball and can't defend the pass, and the Vols have been self-destructing on special teams against the Gators since Tim Tebow was in high school. Oh, and this game is in the Swamp. Florida crushes Tennessee for the ninth straight time, and runs its recent dominance to 22 wins out of the last 28 meetings.