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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators take on Rocky Top once again

Everything seems to point to a Tennessee triumph. Unless...

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

It has been an unexpectedly busy week and Saturday around these parts — even, like, considering — so this is sort of a cop-out of a preview. But you knew Florida is playing Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. on CBS even before you clicked this link, didn’t you?

Anyway, I asked the folks at Rocky Top Talk some questions, and here were the answers.

Tennessee appears to be on the verge of being “back” — or, if not truly in the national championship tier of programs where Alabama and Georgia dwell, then solidly in that next tier in the SEC that seems capable of playing spoiler on the right days. What suggests this run at week-in, week-out relevance is the real push, and what has you worried that this might not quite be the moment?

Yeah, so, we’ve been through this before.

I mean, in 2016, Tennessee beat Florida and Georgia before throwing the year remarkably down the drain by losing to Texas A&M, Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt before season’s end. Not to say that Josh Heupel reminds me of Butch Jones, at all, but I’m just squarely in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp as far as “is Tennessee back?”

Through three games, the offense hasn’t looked flush for an entire game yet. Our starts have been a little slower, and that’s a little bit of a concern, just because we don’t really know why it’s happening.

And depth — like, basically everywhere — just isn’t where it needs to be for a team to contend for real-life legitimacy in the SEC. RB, OL, DL, LB, DBs ... there are just tons of question marks once you get beyond the starters. It’s a year or two early for me, but most Vol fans call me a “negaVol,” so I guess maybe there’s something to that, too.

Florida has obviously played spoiler a few times in Tennessee’s stories of late, and the 16 wins in the last 17 meetings has definitely made it harder for Gators fans to view the Vols as a threat. Would getting a big win over the Gators be different and more meaningful as a marker of progress than beating, say, a good Arkansas or Kentucky team?

Absolutely. This game has become something of a mental block for Vol fans. Tennessee could go up 21-0 in the first quarter, and a good portion of UT fans would be sitting there wondering “when is this gonna go bad, and how bad is it about to get?”

A dub over Florida would definitely take this hype train off the tracks. It wouldn’t really mean the same as a victory against Georgia or Alabama, but I know the fans would hold it in that kind of regard.

Hendon Hooker is the straw that stirs the drink, but he’s at the controls of an offense that has long been cranked up to whir under Josh Heupel. Is Hooker good enough that he’s transcending that offense, or is its potency more about him operating well within it?

Hooker didn’t even win the job last spring practice. It took an injury to Joe Milton for him to take the job, and he quite literally ran away with it. And there’s no question he’s been magnificent as the focal point of the offense. But it’s more about how Hooker and Heupel have meshed, and the way Hooker can operate this offense than it is how talented Hooker is.

That’s no knock on Hooker — it’s impossible to knock a player for throwing 37 TDs and three picks in his going-on two seasons at Tennessee. But it’s just been a perfect match of HC/ OC/QB/supporting cast. Kudos to Heupel and staff for getting some much-needed production out of guys like Cedric Tillman, Velus Jones and JaVonta Payton last season.

The Tennessee defense has been better than expected, especially after leaking points for much of the stretch run in 2021. What’s changed to make things better there, and is this early success likely to be sustainable?

Though it’s still lacking in a big way, the defensive coaching staff KNEW they were gonna need to play more guys this year than last. Matthew Butler, a DL last season, finished seventh in snaps played among all NCAA DL.

And, naturally, the Tennessee defense got gashed in the second half of games last year. But this season, Tennessee’s getting to rotate more on the defensive line and at linebacker.

The secondary is still gonna have trouble, just because the staff mainly trusts the upperclassmen to make fewer mistakes, but then we get into spots when those guys just aren’t talented enough to make some plays we’d like to see them make.

Finally: How do you see things going? Is this the moment for Tennessee to break through and get a big win over Florida?

I don’t ever pick Tennessee to beat Florida. Ever. That won’t change until I see it happen.

I figure Florida is gonna play ball control as its offense and defense, just by extending some drives and keeping the Vols offense off the field. I’m figuring it’s gonna be a grind-it-out game that favors what Florida does more than the Vols’ style. The 10.5-point spread just freaks me out — like, have any of the oddsmakers watched this series over the last two decades??? — and I have the Gators winning the game outright.

Can’t say I agree with that prediction, but ... I can’t say I mind the hope.

Go Gators.