It's been a decade since Tennessee last beat Florida. But come this Saturday, should you really care about the streak itself? No, you really shouldn't.
Is it cool to be able to tell your neighbor that the cat you got nine years ago has never see Tennessee beat Florida? Yes. But what you should really care about is why this year's Tennessee, a team that was hyped by some as the team to beat in the SEC East, now finds itself a very small favorite needing to eke out a win on the road versus a team that is suppose to be rebuilding through a coaching change.
We've read the news that Florida will be without Jalen Tabor and Treon Harris for this one, but how does that come into play? Does it bode well for Tennessee? Can the Vols capitalize on those absences?
To predict how Florida is going to fare against the Vols this year, we have to go back and understand how they got here. This week I talked to Charlie Burris of Rocky Top Talk to get the inside scoop. A lot of the information and perspective I give you is from the conversation he and I had.
From Hype to Here
Tennessee came into 2015 with some of the top offensive talent in the SEC: Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Marquez North, and Pig Howard gave the Vols a solid assortment of skill position players. And an offense with those talents in it could have been perfect for spreading the field out and creating mismatches with different combinations of speed and skill.
However, Butch Jones kind of threw a wrench in that idealistic offense when he hired Mike DeBord as offensive coordinator this past February. DeBord came to Tennessee with an NFL-based background, and was also not in coaching for the last two years. This has led to some issues. For one, the play-calling during that epic collapse in the Oklahoma game was far too conservative down the stretch. That was a game called by someone who was afraid to lose, not by someone who wanted to win.
But before we talk about where DeBord and the Vols have failed in execution, we have to realize what they have the potential to be. Here's what Tennessee's offense looks like at its best.
If Tennessee had its way, this is what its offense would look like on early downs. In this set, we have Joshua Dobbs in the shotgun (as he always will be), running back Hurd to his left, and the man in motion is actually Kamara, Tennessee's second running back. The Vols rank 17th in the nation in total rushing offense, and plays like these are a big reason why.
When you bring a running back in motion from the slot, you truly create a triple-threat offense: All three ball carriers (Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara) are dangerous enough to not only hit the open space, but make players miss and run through some tackles. It's very hard to stack the box enough to stop Hurd or Dobbs up the middle yet contain Kamara's speed if he gets the ball and takes it wide.
This particular play goes to Kamara, and you can see why having a running back on the move as opposed to a wide receiver has its advantages. Normally you'd see a speedy slot receiver running this sweep. If that's the case, he'd just take it all the way outside after already being at top speed. Kamara, however, sees the gap and cuts like a running back, getting up the field and into space behind blockers.
The missed tackles I've been noting for Florida will be costly when trying to attack and contain Tennessee's running talent. Hurd and Kamara will be the best backfield tandem they've faced. It's going to be a busy day for linebackers Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis, who have to be on their game to stop those two.
Multiple Plays in Identical Formations
I have a theory that many people who enjoy watching the game of football also enjoy playing football video games such as Madden or NCAA Football (R.I.P.). Let me use that theory to explain my next topic on Tennessee's offense.
We all have our go-to plays in football video games. But, if we run them enough times, sooner or later our opponent will catch on, and even if we try to throw it to a different player, our opponent will recognize the repeated play in the pre-snap and control someone who can jump the route that's been working all game.
Tennessee counters that in real life by running multiple play designs from identical sets.
Here's the first look: Trips left (three wide receivers in a triangle) with the tight end on the right, in the shotgun.
Here was the result:
The tight end stays at home to block the defensive end and the wide receivers sell the possible screen to neutralize the corners and weak side linebacker. The ball is handed off to Hurd who takes advantage of the defense being split to guard the receivers, and takes the open space for a 10-yard gain. Great play call, but let's look at that formation another time.
Here's another look from a play later in the game: Trips left (three wide receivers in a triangle) with the tight end on the right, shotgun formation.
Here's the result:
So, in the first clip, the wide receiver screen wasn't a distraction after all; it really was a designed play! Tennessee's motion offense is set up to run all kinds of plays where one look may be identical to the next, but you won't know which play they're running until it's too late. Normally, the quarterback has the option to kill whichever play he wants based on the coverage he sees. If the corners are in press -- which Florida's often are -- Dobbs would probably call the handoff.
The only solution for this is for Florida to be on their toes and well-organized all game long. They can't get comfortable and say, "I've seen this set before on tape," because, depending on what Dobbs chooses, it could be a completely different result.
This final offensive note doesn't take much time to explain, but it's key to what Tennessee does when moving the ball. The Vols like to get very creative with their offensive line -- or, at least, were able to against Bowling Green, which I assume is their handbook tape for this season. They'll pull not only their guards, but their tackles and centers on plays that call for it. It's a way for them to create lead blockers without having a fullback or tight end in the back field out of an I-formation. Here's where that can have success.
When offensive linemen pull away from the defensive linemen directly in front of them, it has a tendency to freeze the defender; he was likely expecting to make contact at the moment the ball was snapped, and now has to make a decision. That split second before he can could be all the incoming offensive lineman needs to blindside a free-rushing defender and stop him cold. That's how the play above works.
The dilemma for Tennessee is, well, the Vols won't be facing Bowling Green's defensive line on Saturday; they'll be facing their toughest front four yet. But don't expect them to back off that strategy just because of Florida's talent. They're going to try to play their game, and that means their offensive linemen are going to be outside the trenches a lot. Gap control will be key for the Gators when stopping the run. They can't get caught out-manned when those big boys swing right or left.
Keep all of that offensive potential in mind and let's briefly talk about what happened versus Oklahoma.
Entering the fourth quarter with a 17-3 lead, Tennessee proceeded to run the ball all but once on first and second down on its final three full offensive series — and when the Vols ran the ball, they ran it up the middle all five times. On its last real drive, facing a third and 15, Tennessee threw a pass to a route that wasn't even near the first down line. It just doesn't make sense to bottle up an offense because the Vols wanted to control the game. In college football, the best way to protect the lead is to extend it — you can write that on my tombstone if you want; it's certainly been etched on those of a few conservative coaches. Tennessee's offense has too much potential to net the result it did versus Oklahoma, and that's why we have to question the coaching, not the talent.
The Defense: Sutton, Reeves-Maybin and a Whole Lot of Aggression
I'll give Tennessee's defense this: Those boys play angry. Right from the get-go, the speed and physicality of Tennessee's defense pops out at me on film. It's one of the most aggressive styles of a 4-3 defense I've seen in a long time, and the reason for this is constant press coverage, a big-hit mentality, and a thirst for the ball. I think all of that starts with cornerback Cam Sutton.
If I had to describe Sutton in one word, it would be "fearless." At 5'11", 185 pounds, he doesn't intimidate anyone with his size, and yet, he's always called upon to guard the other team's best receiver. He's constantly shadowing the top receivers in the SEC, no matter their size, and he'll most likely be matched up against Demarcus Robinson all game long.
Sutton is a matchup corner who loves to get up into the face of his receivers right off the bat. He loves to get his hands on them within that five-yard buffer zone to knock them off their route or take them out of the play completely. His play style and lead-by-example attitude is a big reason we see the Vols defense line up like this:
This is pure nickel, with all three corners in press and the free safety in Cover 1 as the strong safety moves up into the box. If that isn't a show of confidence in man-to-man coverage skills, I don't know what is.
The easiest way to counter aggressive corner coverage is by going over the top. If corner puts his hands on a receiver to jam him up, it's the receiver's job to swing his arms around the defender and sprint up the field as fast as he can.
And so, if there were ever a game for Will Grier to throw for over 300 yards, this would be it. Not because the Vols are bad on the outside (some say their corners are the strength of their defense), but because receivers like Antonio Callaway and Ahmad Fulwood are either going to get separation, or they aren't. The routes they run will be simple, so it's just a matter of getting behind their defenders. If they can, the yards and the points are there.
That's what it's going to look like all day for Florida in terms of coverage, but when running the ball, my guy to watch out for is weak side linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He has an explosive first step and a powerful jump when he goes to take down the ball carrier. He shows good range all around the field and can really do some damage causing fumbles.
What gets him in trouble is when he overpursues, which can happen often because he's so eager to hit a ball carrier with as much force as possible. It'll be a fast-moving, body-jarring day when Florida's offense meets Tennessee's defense. Florida's skill guys, most notably the diminutive Brandon Powell, ought to be carful over the middle.
So, do you care less about the winning streak now? I didn't think so.
It's fun to win, and it's fun to have bragging rights. However, I hope you keep in mind that winning this game is bigger for Florida because it's this win, not because it's the 11th win. Don't get too caught up in the winning streak. Remember: Tennessee won the first 10, but I guess winning the most recent 11 would make up for it.
One last final note. It is with a bittersweet feeling that I tell you all that this will be my last film breakdown article for Alligator Army, at least for this season. I've been offered and have accepted a writing position to do college football film breakdowns as well as help lead NFL Draft coverage for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It's an offer that could lead to some bright horizons, and one I simply could not pass up.
I have truly enjoyed my time as a writer for this community. Getting the chance to talk football with you all is all I ever wanted from this platform; everything else was an added bonus. Thank you for the reads, the compliments, the criticism, and everything in between. You have helped make me a better journalist. (And, yes, I'll still be around in the comments and whatnot. It just won't be my name at the top of the articles anymore.)
Thank you for everything.
And go Gators!