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Florida vs. Tennessee: Can the Gators slow down the high-flying Vols?

Florida’s September gauntlet continues on Saturday, as it faces the most fearsome offense it has yet seen.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl - Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

After three straight home games to open the Billy Napier era, Florida goes on the road for the first time this season. This is not just any road game either: The Gators head to Knoxville, Tennessee, where College GameDay, 100,000 rabid fans and a tough Tennessee football team await.

In spite of the fact that Florida has won 16 of the last 17 games in this series, this is still a rivalry — to those 100,000 people that will be in attendance Saturday, certainly. I was living in east Tennessee in 2016 while coaching at Tusculum University. When the final whistle blew on the Florida-Tennessee game after a duck pulled a truck or something, I heard MULTIPLE people in my neighborhood shoot off fireworks.

This one is still important.

Beyond the rivalry, this game is also vitally important for Florida in terms of conference record. If you have any dreams — even if they seem like Ambien-induced dreams at this point — of winning the SEC East, then you can’t afford to lose this one.

The Vols have a high-powered, fast-paced offense led by dark horse Heisman contender Hendon Hooker. Hooker is a true dual-threat quarterback, able to generate explosive plays through the air and on the ground with equal adeptness. The Tennessee defense has probably exceeded expectations so far this year. If they can maintain a high standard of play, this is a Volunteer team that can be very dangerous.

Florida vs. Tennessee Statistical Comparison

Team Florida Gators Tennessee Volunteers
Team Florida Gators Tennessee Volunteers
Category Number Rank Number Rank
YPP Offense 6.02 78 7.13 19
YPP Defense 5.41 76 4.62 33
Available Yards % O 47.10% 70 63.00% 18
Available Yards % D 52.10% 80 39.10% 38
Third Downs O 38.89% 67 40.48% 63
Third Downs D 48.78% 112 23.91% 11
Explosive Plays O 10 108 20 10
Explosive Plays D 13 71 10 35
Turnover Margin 0 73 2 36
Average Starting Field Position Own 25.2 114 Own 32.5 35
Player Average Rank Player Average Rank
Team Talent Composite 89.86 12 87.7 19

The numbers confirm the eye test for both teams. Florida has really struggled with consistency through the first quarter of the season. A majority of Florida’s numbers sit at or around average.

The Tennessee offense is top 20 in yards per play, available yards percentage, and explosive plays. The Vols’ defense has also been pretty good, being inside the top 40 in the same three categories.

For Florida to win this game, they will likely need to extend drives. You don’t want the Vols offense to have a ton of opportunities with the ball. The Gators will also need to get the Tennessee offense off the field when the opportunity arises. Long drives coupled with that high pace will lead to a very tired defense in the fourth quarter.

Third down will be extremely important this week. Florida has struggled with third downs on both sides of the ball so far this year. Surprisingly, the Tennessee offense has not been stellar on third downs — but their defense has been lights out.

An underrated stat that can explain a little bit of Florida’s offensive struggles is starting field position. It’s tough to win the field position battle when your defense can’t get off the field on third down, and you can’t extend drives on offense. An offense having to chain together more conversions by virtue of field position magnifies the struggles of not generating explosive plays; by contrast, an offense that faces (marginally, maybe) fewer third downs by virtue of field position makes life harder on a defense that doesn’t get as many shots at shutting down that possession.

Florida is, on average, starting the ball on its own 25. That’s good for 114th in the country. Tennessee, on the other hand, starts on average at around its 33, which is the top third nationally. A lot of these numbers tie into each other, but average starting field position may be a good metric to follow this week. If Florida wins that battle, then maybe the defense forced some three-and-outs, maybe the offense put some drives together, or maybe a Tennessee turnover gave Florida a short field.

Scheme Things We Might See

I don’t think we will see it, but I’d love to see two backs in at the same time for Florida. If you want your best 11 in on offense, you probably need to put the guys wearing No. 2 and No. 7 out there at the same time.

I would imagine we see a good bit of man coverage from the Tennessee defense. If I’m playing this Florida offense, I would load up the box and make you win outside. If you can, I tip my cap to you. In their game against Pitt, Tennessee was in man on 56.9 percent of the Panthers’ dropbacks. Tennessee also blitzed on 47.1 percent of dropbacks. I would expect the Vols to stay aggressive against Florida.

As far as counters are concerned: Maybe we see a screen early from Florida to try and slow down this Vol defense and take advantage of the man coverage? I’d also imagine that Florida will play with a really slow pace, intending to limit possessions against a potent offense that can score quickly and wear down a defense with tempo.

The Tennessee offense has its roots in the Briles system. They love to push the ball down the field vertically. But there is also a pretty good run game almost hidden in there. For as much hype as the passing game gets, Josh Heupel’s teams at UCF were always great at running the ball, and there was a telling big split in rushing yards in wins versus losses. That split was also seen for the Vols last season: In their seven wins, Tennessee ran the ball for 274 yards per game, while in losses, the Vols ran for 151.2 yards per game and only averaged 3.69 yards per carry. I would expect Florida to be aggressive in coverage and play some more man coverage.

Another interesting wrinkle to follow is how much Tennessee uses motion. They have been using motion on only 10 percent of snaps this season, which is well below the national average. However, USF gave the Gators one or perhaps two or maybe dozens of problems with their use of motion. Florida would definitely prefer that Tennessee does not combine that fast pace with motion. If they do, it could be an even taller task for Florida.

What makes the Tennessee offense so good? What has led to the Vols’ defensive resurgence? What can we expect to see schematically? I answer those questions in the video below.

This is a game that will be tough to win if Florida doesn’t play markedly better than it has over the last two weeks. The Gators are a bigger underdog in this game than they have ever been to Tennessee this millennium, basically, and there are good reasons for that.

But I don’t think this is a game that is unwinnable. I would expect Tennessee to win, but Pitt gave a bit of a blueprint on an effective way to play the Vols. I don’t know if the Gators can execute that blueprint or not — but they have been able to find one that does work 16 times in the last 17 years. It’s a history that is hard to bet against.