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Florida vs. Tennessee preview: I have no idea what is about to happen

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Florida and Tennessee are twin enigmas. We cannot combine those words without getting close to slurs.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, the Florida Gators have had two weeks to lick the wounds they sustained against the Michigan Wolverines in their season opener.

In reality, those two weeks were cleaved messily by a hurricane, and the Gators have more questions to answer than answers to questions entering this Saturday’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Tennessee rush defense

Florida’s apparently going to be without Jordan Scarlett again — I have been on this beat for too long to entirely rule out an eleventh-hour clearance of the Florida Fraud Nine, but yeah, that’s not happening — and had so little success against Michigan on the ground that there is an argument for Feleipe Franks as Florida’s best ball-carrier in that game. Apart from Malik Davis looking quick on an eight-yard tote and Mark Thompson getting free for the above-pictured touchdown — one called back for holding — there was nothing to be all that excited about for the Gators on the ground.

But Tennessee is not Michigan, and not nearly so good at defending the run.

The Vols rank No. 127 in rush defense, and while their raw numbers look slightly worse than their per-play clip — 657 yards allowed in two games looks worse than 5.30 yards permitted per carry — and are exacerbated by playing Georgia Tech’s expertly-run option offense, it’s not like Tennessee was fantastic against the run a week ago against Indiana State. Tennessee gave up just 3.2 yards per carry to the Sycamores, a far cry from the 6.2 it allowed to the Yellow Jackets — whose 86 carries for 535 yards were beyond ridiculous — but their 122 yards were actually right at Indiana State’s season average in 2016, a year in which the Sycamores managed more than 3.5 yards per carry just twice.

It should be troubling for the Vols that their defensive front did not shut down Indiana State, and the same should be enticing for Florida. But Florida’s offensive line will likely have to recover from being whipped against Michigan and play better to make the most of the Vols’ supposed disadvantage in this aspect.

Edge: Florida

Florida passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense

Florida should go with Franks for the duration of this game, or close to it. I could see the Gators deploying some trickery — Malik Zaire for read-option work, or Kadarius Toney for that and wildcat formations — at QB, but I’m confident Franks is going to be the guy who will throw the majority of the Gators’ passes, barring injury.

I’m less confident that his line will give him time to do that from a clean pocket, or keep him uninjured.

Florida receivers got open against Michigan, and made plays with the few opportunities they got. Tyrie Cleveland, especially, was excellent, and he was good against Tennessee last year, too; Brandon Powell was also very good against Tennessee two years ago. But those opportunities were scarce, and this game is being played in 2017. Tennessee’s defense has speed and a good coordinator in Bob Shoop that could make such a predicament recur on this Saturday in The Swamp.

A worthwhile note here: Tennessee did not allow a third-down conversion to Indiana State after giving up 13 to Georgia Tech on 18 attempts. There might be something to be said for the Gators attempting to run more than they throw, even in situations where that would seem illogical.

Edge: Even

When Tennessee has the ball

Tennessee running game vs. Florida rush defense

John Kelly is good: He’s a bruising back who has topped 80 rushing yards in both of Tennessee’s games in 2017, and has also been a decent receiving option. He rushed for almost two and a half more yards per carry against Georgia Tech than against Indiana State, but it’s not as if 18 carries for 80 yards is bad, really. Tennesee also has speedster Carlin Fils-Aime of Naples, whose three carries against the Sycamores yielded 41 yards and two touchdowns.

But let’s be real: Kelly is getting the rock when the rock is kept ground-bound. He has 37 carries in 2017; Tennessee has distributed 59. (The symmetry of his 37 carries equaling Tennessee’s 37 against Indiana State and other Vols’ 22 matching their allocation against Georgia Tech is neat.)

Further, the specter of Joshua Dobbs terrorizing Florida with his feet should not haunt this game. Quarterbacks Quentin Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano have combined for six carries, and Tennessee’s also allowed just one sack for a loss of seven yards: On the other five carries, the QBs have accrued 14 yards on the ground.

That’s the profile of a good but unspectacular running game, and Florida could yet match up fairly well with those if its seemingly correctable issues — filling gaps correctly, and setting edges — against Michigan are fixed or improved. The Gators will certainly worry more about being run over than run by; team speed on defense is very good to excellent.

Edge: Even

Tennessee passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Dormady will be Tennessee’s primary passer barring injury; Guarantano was a healthily-hyped recruit, but looked as green as the back nine at Augusta against Indiana State in limited action, and did not attempt a pass against Georgia Tech. So the Gators will see a guy who completed just 20 of 37 throws against what was a mediocre Georgia Tech secondary in 2016 and looks like a slightly better one in 2017, then hit at a higher rate against Indiana State, when he threw for nearly 11 yards per attempt and racked up three touchdowns.

Those are good numbers, not great ones. The fear factor for the Vols comes from a pass-catching corps that has the playmakers to compensate for Jauan Jennings — who memorably burned a stumbling Teez Tabor in 2016, giving Tennessee fans their favorite moment against Florida in more than a decade — going down with a broken wrist. Marquez Callaway is averaging about 30 yards per catch on his five receptions this year, and Kelly has 10 catches for 95 yards despite being a running back; Ethan Wolf remains a formidably-sized tight end who can be a safety blanket.

This Tennessee passing game is a slightly tougher test than the one Florida faced in the form of Michigan, but the Gators also know now they have players who will show up on Saturdays who are not senior stalwarts Duke Dawson and Nick Washington. Dawson should draw the speedy Callaway, leaving Marco Wilson to take Tennessee’s replacement for Jennings on the other side, but C.J. Henderson could rotate into those coverage assignments, as well.

And Florida’s defensive line could give Tennessee fits and leave Dormady with precious little time to throw, as it often did to Michigan’s QBs, although the Vols allowed just one sack to Georgia Tech — which subsequently tallied four sacks in its next game.

Edge: Even

Special teams

Deep irony No. 1: The electric Callaway who might play a pivotal role in this game on special teams is Marquez, not Florida’s still-suspended Antonio, who could be a menace as a returner.

Deep irony No. 2: Tennessee, known for the practice of mining one family’s bloodline for talent at a given specialist position in recent years with the Colquitt family’s punters, tried to pull a reversal of that by initially getting Johnny Townsend’s brother, Tommy, to Knoxville. Except the younger Townsend is now in Gainesville, set to succeed his big brother as Florida’s punter next year.

Both teams have good kickers in Eddy Piñeiro and Aaron Medley, though Medley has not yet been asked to kick a field goal in 2017, and good punters in Townsend and Trevor Daniel. I’d give Florida a slight edge at both positions, but Florida’s woeful kick return game did not show any signs of improving to the point where I will say “Okay, that decision not to just get to the 25 via touchback was a good one,” so the hidden yardage for the Gators on special teams may just come via those powerful legs, not the fleet feet of returners.

Edge: Even

Other factors

Tennessee beat Florida last year and did not win the SEC East, which made it different from the previous 11 years of the rivalry in that Tennessee finally beat Florida on the field instead of in the standings, and suddenly felt the need to revive Florida fans’ argument about rivalry superiority being based on head-to-head performance from a decade ago. Tennessee is also still desperately in search of unequivocal big wins under Butch Jones — last year’s comeback over Florida is the closest the Vols have been, really, and it was perhaps the least impressive of any of the wins teams have gotten against Florida in the Jim McElwain era. There will be hungry Vols keen on knocking off the Gators in The Swamp on this Saturday.

Florida is playing its first home game in more than 10 months, coming off a dispiriting loss to a team it thought it would beat, and just survived a hurricane that was profoundly disruptive — though, fortunately, merely disruptive — to the Gators’ season. Oh, and the vast majority of the fans in attendance on Saturday are desperate to have something to cheer for in the wake of that hurricane, which has cast literal and physical shade over the entire state for about a fortnight.

Also, someone peed on Tim Tebow’s statue this week.

I’m gonna give the edge to Florida here. I think you understand.

Edge: Florida