There’s not much we should expect when No. 23 Tennessee takes on No. 24 Saturday. Here’s what we do know for sure: The rivalry game will be played at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday in Gainesville, it’ll broadcast on CBS and the Vols are coming off a win in the series for the first time since 2004. While that’s not all we really know, it feels like it is.
The Vols are 2-0, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a typical two-win start. The orange and white gave up a school-record 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech, but rallied to knock off the Yellow Jackets 42-41 in a double-overtime thriller to start the season. The Vols returned to Knoxville and Neyland Stadium to beat Indiana State just five days later, but Tennessee never really impressed.
The Gators, meanwhile, cancelled last week’s scheduled game against Northern Colorado in wake of Hurricane Irma. That leaves Jim McElwain and Florida facing plenty of question marks after a 33-17 loss to No. 7 Michigan in AT&T Stadium. The Gators started offensively with freshman Feleipe Franks at quarterback, then switched to Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire while struggling to find any offensive identity.
Even the venue, Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin, has plenty of unknowns. The university is concerned about fully staffing the stadium and travel around Gainesville with a large crowd still expected. Just look at the signage at the top of the stadium, too, which is missing some letters.
Yes lol pic.twitter.com/jbbY56qJfJ
— Lucas Dolengowski (@LDolengowski) September 12, 2017
It’s appropriate that the letters missing are an ‘O’ and ‘D,’ though, because that’s what will probably be missing from each team on Saturday.
Florida will be looking for an ‘O’ for more than just that sign after mustering just 11 (!!) rushing and 192 total yards against the Wolverines. Franks had an impressive deep throw early in the first quarter, then never got a chance to showcase that skill again. He had just nine pass attempts to Zaire’s 17, and the two together didn’t clear up any mess that the Gators’ offense had.
Then, Florida had to cancel its second game of the season. That matchup with Northern Colorado could have helped McElwain and company work through some growing pains before Saturday, but they don’t get that. While the Gators do get an extra week of rest and preparation, McElwain will need to work very quickly on finding an offensive rhythm to help Florida out in any way that he can.
If that wasn’t concerning enough, it seems as though Florida will be without more than a few key players against the Vols. Nine players remain suspended among the credit card fraud investigation, including wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett, the Gators’ two best offensive weapons. Even on top of that, tight end Deandre Goolsby (the team’s third-leading receiver in 2016, he also caught a touchdown pass against Tennessee) and freshman wide receiver James Robinson are both out indefinitely with health issues.
Where does Florida go on offense? Leaning on the legs of Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson is about the only guess we have for the Gators’ offense. That tactic should serve well against the aforementioned Vol defense, which hasn’t impressed yet.
After Tennessee’s tough matchup against Georgia Tech’s misdirection, option offense, the Vols were just solid enough against Indiana State to hold the Sycamores to seven points. Indiana State still rushed for 122 yards, but the Vols weren’t tipping their hands to anything fancy in order to nullify Florida’s bye-week advantage as much as possible.
The Vols allowed more than 100 rushing yards to every SEC opponent last season, including an abysmal 863 combined rushing yards to Kentucky and Missouri towards the end of 2016. And while the Vols didn’t look terrible against the pass last week, supposed leader at cornerback Justin Martin was a liability against Georgia Tech. We really don’t know what we’re going to see from Tennessee’s defense against a more traditional offense this week.
Conversely, Tennessee’s offense has scored 42 points in both games this season and Quinten Dormady played mostly well in the Vols’ week two win. However, Dormady badly overthrew freshman Josh Palmer twice on deep balls against the Sycamores and he doesn’t offer much of a running element. Leading returning receiver Jauan Jennings is out indefinitely with a wrist injury, so we’ll see what the Vols turn to on Saturday.
For Florida, the secondary cashed in on two pick-sixes against Michigan and kept the Gators in the game until the defense literally couldn’t any longer. However, the defense gave up 215 rushing yards (433 total yards) to the Wolverines, and running the ball is the one thing Tennessee might feel comfortable with.
The Vols’ rushing attack relies on experienced, hard-nosed runner John Kelly and boast two young talents in Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-aime behind him. Tennessee has always tried to find initial success on the ground in games under Butch Jones, and Saturday will be no exception. However, Florida’s defensive front gave Michigan all kinds of fits on the ground. The Vols are more experienced on the offensive line than the Wolverines, but this Florida front has a lot of talent. It’s hard to make much about any of it without a big ol’ shrug.