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Florida vs. Tennessee, Preview: Can Gators escape Rocky Top with a win?

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Florida and Tennessee meet as mirror images of mediocrity.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have been alternately really good and really not good so far in 2018.

Sandwiched between the Gators blowout wins against pushovers Charleston Southern and Colorado State was a baffling, brutal loss to Kentucky in which the Wildcats pushed Florida around. The newly-revealed Florida advanced statistical profile for 2018 tells the story: The Gators ended those wins with a 100 percent win expectancy, based on statistical achievements on the field, and ended their loss — which was a one-possession game on its final drive! — with a paltry two percent win expectancy.

In other words, Florida has fully deserved its two wins — and its loss.

This Saturday, the Gators are in Knoxville to take on Tennessee — a team equally as deserving of its own 2-1 record. And though both would love nothing more than to avoid it, one of the two teams on Rocky Top tonight is falling to 2-2.

When Florida has the ball

Florida’s offense has arguably been pretty good twice and pretty bad twice — and yes, that’s true over just three games, not four.

The Gators obviously romped against Charleston Southern, and there isn’t much evidence to the contrary. But against Kentucky, Florida’s offense was arguably not bad, statistically — it was the defense that let it down, this argument would continue, if not for the fact that Florida scored just 16 points at home against Kentucky. And against Colorado State, Florida struggled mightily early on to play well on offense, with Feleipe Franks missing on his first six passes and a running game only slowly gaining traction, before excellence late that was devalued by a statistical system that discounts accomplishments garbage time.

So which of those offenses shows up at Tennessee?

Florida would obviously have to hope for the good one, and for an uncommonly fast start by Franks. He’s been (much) better in second quarters than first periods this year, and Florida has followed his lead.

But the Gators can also hope that their much-maligned offensive line might be more than a match for Tennessee’s front.

The Vols have done a fine job of limiting big plays on the ground, giving up just eight rushes of 10 or more yards, three rushes of 20 or more yards, and one rush of 30 or more yards this year. (For perspective, mighty Alabama has given up 12, three, and one of the same.) But Tennessee’s yielded ground on non-explosive runs, giving up about four yards a carry on the year through three games, and has done so against rushing-allergic West Virginia, FCS East Tennessee State, and FBS cellar-dweller UTEP — which had fewer yards per carry against Northern Arizona than it did against the Vols.

And though Tennessee’s pass defense looks good superficially, it has given up under 70 yards per game through the air in its last two games since giving up 429 yards and five scores to Will Grier’s Mountaineers. While no one is confusing Franks for Grier, he has better targets than anyone ETSU or UTEP could deploy, and he should have time against a Tennessee rush that is a mid-pack outfit in terms of getting to the quarterback.

What he does with that time is anyone’s guess.

Slight edge: Florida

When Tennessee has the ball

Florida’s defense is a question mark in its own right.

The Gators have shut down both Charleston Southern and Colorado State on the ground, but they were gutted by a straightforward and smashmouth approach by Kentucky, and both the Wildcats and Rams had success through the air against a green and flammable Florida secondary. Freshman Trey Dean III didn’t give up any big plays against the Rams in relief of the sidelined Marco Wilson, but it wasn’t for lack of blown coverages.

What Florida’s secondary has put on film through three weeks likely has the ageless Jauan Jennings — who might be a 12th-year senior — licking his lips.

But will Jarrett Guarantano be able to get him and his fellow receivers the ball?

The Vols’ signal-caller has been pretty good so far this year, with at least 165 passing yards, a single touchdown, and no picks in all three of his starts. But Tennessee is dead last in sack rate allowed on standard downs — though, bizarrely, tied for first in sack rate allowed on blitz downs, a possible problem for Todd Grantham’s pressure-happy play-calling — and has not faced a front with edge rushers as good as Florida’s Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga.

Tennessee might be better off running on Florida’s front, which cleaned up some technique issues against Colorado State but was still plagued by missed tackles. The Vols have four backs averaging more than four yards per carry and over 100 yards on the year, and while Tim Jordan is the putative starter, Ty Chandler, Madre London, and Jeremy Banks have all had their successes thus far. Florida should have junior linebacker David Reese, almost certainly its best run defender, on the field on a Saturday for the first time in 2018, but he’s only one man, and Florida’s linebackers have been hit or miss in run support this fall.

Slight edge: Tennessee

When both teams are kicking

Florida’s special teams have been maybe the great story of this Gators outfit through three games. Florida is blocking kicks at a rate not seen since Dan Mullen was first in town. Evan McPherson and Tommy Townsend have missed few beats in taking over for longtime stars at kicker and punter. And Freddie Swain has emerged as a dangerous punt returner, punctuating his rise with a dazzling scamper for six against Colorado State. About the only thing Florida’s truly struggled at on special teams is covering kickoffs — and, well, who says there will be all that many of those to cover?

Tennessee, by contrast, has been mostly fine. Punter Jon Doyle is averaging inches under 40 yards per punt, but the Vols have allowed just three punt returns. Kicker Brent Cimaglia has made just two field goals, but he’s only attempted two. The Vols got a touchdown off a blocked punt against East Tennessee State, but have 10 yards on their other five punt returns; they’ve also only had three kick returns on the year.

I think Florida is slightly more likely to make a game-changing play on special teams, but I’d also put Florida’s chances of allowing a big play — on a kickoff, most likely — slightly higher than Tennessee’s. So: A wash?

Edge: Even