What makes the Tennessee vs Florida matchup so unique is the variation of contests the rivalry has trudged through since the 1990s, particularly over the last three seasons. Ever since the Gators became a national powerhouse under the guidance of Steve Spurrier, the bad blood between the two programs has skyrocketed. From Tennessee’s perspective, it reached a new zenith once Florida reeled off 11 straight victories from 2005-2015.
Given how the last threw games have played out, that bad blood isn’t likely to cool down anytime soon.
2014: Florida 10, Tennessee 9 (at Neyland): Perhaps the worst game of all time. A modern spin on the 1946 Game of the Century (a 0-0 tie between Notre Dame and Army).
2015: Florida 28, Tennessee 27 (at The Swamp): Tennessee controlled most of this game, but then Butch didn’t go for the obvious two-point conversion when the Vols took a 26-14 lead, and used timeouts at the most inopportune times possible. Florida converted five fourth downs, overcame a 27-14 deficit late in the fourth quarter, and won on one of the most memorable plays in the rivalry’s history.
2016: Tennessee 38, Florida 28 (at Neyland): After falling behind 21-3 at halftime, it was one of those “here we go again” games. That was, until, the Vols scored 35 straight points in the second half, sending Neyland into a frenzy, and a plethora of couches into an inferno.
The 2017 version of the rivalry currently deals with a juggling of displeasing questions. Is Florida’s offense dreadful enough to negate Tennessee’s horrendous defense? Is Tennessee’s offense competent enough to score on Florida’s swarming defense?
These types of questions normally don’t lead to a barn burner. In fact, it could play out the way a Seahawks-Bears game did a couple of years ago, where Chicago’s offense was so putrid that an article on SBNation was hilariously titled “The Bears got on a plane, punted 10 times and went home.”
This isn’t to imply the Vols will punt every possession and lose 26-0 like the Bears did, but what I’m getting at is, prepare for a tsunami of 3-and-outs and punts.
Basically, this game won’t feature the excitement of 2015 or 2016. It’ll likely be a carbon copy of the 2014 game, which nobody wants, but given the current state of both programs, is the game we’ll likely witness.
So in this soon-to-be punt marathon, is Florida’s offense dreadful enough to negate Tennessee’s horrendous defense?
The existential problem Florida’s offense has faced since the glorious Tim Tebow years is a lack of acceptable quarterback play. It should be noted that acceptable doesn’t imply Heisman quality or making an All-SEC team. Acceptable is more like Greg McElroy, who is Peyton Manning compared to the quarterbacks the Gators have fielded.
Luckily for the Vols, it’s 2017, and nothing has changed in Gainesville. People described the 2016 Presidential Election as a “lesser of two evils” when it came to voting. In Jim McElwain’s case, his 2017 Quarterback Election is a selection of which torture method he wants — water boarding or the Sicilian Bull.
Between Felipe Franks and Malik Zaire, there’s no right or wrong answer for McElwain. There’s only a lesser of two evils, and it’s not particularly clear which choice is the better of the two.
Against Michigan, Franks dropped a 34-yard dime on his first throw:
Before Gator fans could get too excited and dub Franks a combination of Danny Wuerffel and Tebow, he immediately followed a perfect throw with a perfect blunder:
And no, that wasn’t the only time he did that:
Although Zaire never fell flat on his face, boy does he struggle reading the field:
That play was actually one of the few creative plays McElwain called on offense. Unfortunately, Zaire never looked at his wide open target on the opposite side of the field, who had nothing but open space and a brigade of Gators in front of him.
However, here’s the problem: Nobody is confusing Tennessee’s defense for Michigan’s defense. While the Wolverines are relentless in their pursuit of the ball carrier, the Vols are relentless in the amount of rushing yards they allow. The Gators found little success in the ground game against Michigan, as the majority of run plays were met with resistance behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the best run of the game for Florida was called back because of a holding penalty and the second best run was a scramble:
It’s easy to poke fun at Florida’s offense, but there’s no denying the athleticism the Gators have at the skill positions. This could create a problem for the Vols, who have thus far in 2017 given zero indication they’re fundamentally sound on defense.
Time for the second question: Is Tennessee’s offense competent enough to score on Florida’s swarming defense?
The Vols have scored 42 points in each of their two games this season. That trend will end on Saturday because of Quinten Dormady’s inability to throw accurately downfield.
Florida’s defense isn’t one to make many mistakes, especially against a quarterback as inexperienced as Dormady. In fact, the Gators’ defense has been the team’s best offense all season, as both of Florida’s touchdowns came off of pick sixes. In all likelihood, Florida will stack the box in order to negate the John Kelly effect and force Dormady to beat them through the air. The last time Tennessee was in Gainesville, quarterback Joshua Dobbs only threw for 89 yards, but gashed Florida on the ground. Head coach Butch Jones stated earlier this week that the team wants to get Dormady involved more in the ground game, but Dormady won’t rush for 100 yards and faces the chance of throwing for under 100 yards.
There’s no clear-cut answer to both questions. Is Florida’s offense dreadful enough to negate Tennessee’s horrendous defense? Is Tennessee’s offense competent enough to score on Florida’s swarming defense? The season is frankly to young and the teams are too unpredictable at this juncture to determine how exactly this game will play out.
But regardless of how it plays out, I can promise you this: It’s gonna get ugly.