1. Protect The Quarterback/Running Backs
It goes without saying that the offensive line needs help. This unit has struggled through three games thus far, even against inferior competition. Nonetheless, this is the most important component heading into Saturday’s game. The play of this group will affect every other unit. It would be a tremendous help if they could start by protecting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano in the pocket and buying him a little more time.
The sophomore has an impressive 72.2 completion percentage through three games. He and the receiving corps seem to have a good rapport. He has consistently been able to find targets in short time. Credit offensive coordinator Tyson Helton for drawing up plays to get the ball out of Guarantano’s hands. It was apparent from the first game that a heavy dose of an intermediate pass game was necessary until the offensive line finds their groove. Can the unit come together and play their best game of the season on Saturday?
They don’t need to be world-beaters for this offense to have success. Tennessee is averaging over 220 yards per game on the ground. If the offensive line can just show some grit in the run game and buy Guarantano some time, this offense can be hard for Florida to stop. Jerome Carvin will get the start at right guard this week in place of Chance Hall. Maybe the freshman can provide a spark that this unit desperately needs. No one wants to allow a sack, but I think if Tennessee allows just one or less, the offense will get going.
2. Let Guarantano Loose
What better way to combat a poor offensive line than to manipulate the pocket and scramble for positive yardage? This could be Tennessee’s trump card. Helton, along with Jeremy Pruitt, have yet to unleash Guarantano’s full skill set. It has been with good reason. Their game plan simply did not work against West Virginia. Thanks to the performance of the aforementioned offensive line, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Also, there wasn’t a need for Guarantano running at will against ETSU and UTEP. Saturday needs to be the day that JG is let loose. The quarterback is coming off a career-high 20-yard rushing performance against UTEP. That is with sack yardage factored in. If he can get that number up to 30, the Vols will be in good shape. Couple that with a 250-yard passing game and the Florida defense will be on its heels.
Guarantano has never hit the 250 mark, but he has come close on a couple of occasions. He had 242 against Kentucky last year, a game UT should have won. He also had an impressive 239 versus LSU in a monsoon that resulted in a loss during the same season. I think his magic number for this game is 250. He has shown a better deep ball this season. Helton and company need to utilize the newfound weapon. If the Tennessee offense can stretch the field and let JG use his legs, good things will happen.
3. Win Turnover Battle
Winning the turnover battle is important in conference play. So far this season, the Vols have a positive turnover ratio. Tennessee has two turnovers on the year against four that have been forced. They need to keep that trend going in order to tame the Gators.
Guarantano has yet to throw an interception. The Vols are a half-inch and a muffed punt away from having zero turnovers. They are trending in the right direction in order to place themselves in a position to succeed. Taking care of the ball at home with a rowdy crowd is a great equalizer. If the defense can be disruptive, the Vols will have the advantage. For the turnover game, Tennessee’s magic number is two.
4. Stellar Secondary Play
Being disruptive on defense starts up front. So far, the Tennessee front has played well. They just need the back end to clean things up. Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland, Jr. will be ready to play. It is the young secondary that will be the x-factor for the Vols defense. The unit will have to make sure they don’t get beat deep. Florida quarterback Felipe Franks has a big arm and the Vols should plan accordingly.
Freshman Bryce Thompson will get the start at cornerback. His backup will be fellow freshman Alontae Taylor. Thompson has shown promise so far. He has an interception, a forced fumble and eight tackles. To add to that disruption, he has a couple of pass deflections, including one that should have been an interception. Not bad for a late addition to the 2018 class. If you think it is out of the realm of possibility that a true freshman can have an impact against Florida, look no further than the guy lining up opposite of Thompson for proof that it isn’t. Junior Baylen Buchannon gets the start there.
In 2016, Buchannon started in place of injured veteran Cam Sutton. He was part of a coverage unit that kept Florida in check. Buchannon garnered the respect of his teammates even before the season. His performance during the 2016 Florida game only enhanced that acknowledgement. Don’t forget about Nigel Warrior. The head-hunter has yet to have a significant impact this year. He needs a statement game and is capable of providing just that. The magic number for this unit is one: create one turnover.
5. Rushing Attack
As in most Tennessee/Florida games, the victory will likely come down to who can run the ball more effectively. The Gators average 184.3 yards per game through three games. The Vols average 221.3. The Vols have a more talented stable of backs, but a less talented offensive line. They key will be getting to the edge and making guys miss. Look for Helton to call on Ty Chandler for this purpose. The sophomore is coming off a career-high 158-yard rushing performance against UTEP. If Florida contains the edge, Helton will have to get Chandler the ball in space through the passing game, something that hasn’t been exploited yet. Tim Jordan will have to shoulder the load of running between the tackles. They key number here for the running backs is 170. Add that to Guarantano’s 30 yards on the ground and the Vols hit the 200 mark. Why is 200 important? The Gators are 3-9 in their last 12 games when giving up 200 yards or more on the ground.
There you have it: if Tennessee can parlay these magic numbers into fruition, then Rocky Top will be heard around the city all night long.
Just remember, it’s a night game. Godspeed fellow fans.