After three straight non conference opponents, the Volunteers open their 2018 SEC slate with a usual suspect, the Florida Gators. Vol fans require no reminders to how big this game is, no matter the records or expectations for either team. This is a game between two teams and two fan bases that simply do not like one another, a true rivalry in the SEC East. While this contest is rich with tradition, history, great players, thrilling plays, and memorable games, the most important contest is always the upcoming game. The 2018 edition of this rivalry is no different in that regard. While for the first time in decades neither the Vols nor the Gators are expected to contend for the SEC crown, both of these teams enter today's matchup in similar places. Both teams are coming off hugely disappointing, four win campaigns in 2017 that lead to new coaching staffs on either sideline. Both teams are considered rebuilding by the media at large, as the new staffs implement systems that differ greatly from those of their respective predecessors. Finally, both of these teams enter today in need of a big win against a bitter rival. Again, no matter the records, this is a big game for both of these programs, and a win would be an enormous boost to each of these teams and their new head coaches. Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen can each find a clue to winning their first taste of this rivalry as head coaches by looking into its storied past.
For years, especially in the hay day of this rivalry, the game always seemed to come down to one, single statistic: Rushing yards. Whichever team managed to run the ball the best and, thanks to the way sacks are scored, protect their quarterback the best, won this game for years. It was the single stat that defined who won and lost the game year after year. The last few seasons have seen this stat flip, as the team that has rushed the ball best has lost the game. Look for this trend to revert to type today in Neyland Stadium, as the team most effective on the ground should leave victorious.
Neither the Vols nor the Gators have looked particularly explosive through the air, despite both teams having talented play makers out wide. Tyrie Cleveland is best weapon the Gators have at their disposal by far, though his production has been limited by streaky play from Felipe Franks and the Gator offensive line. For the Vols, Marquez Callaway is a dynamic player at receiver, and he has definitely shown flashes this season even in the framework of an offense that has been run oriented. Jarret Guarantano and the Volunteer passing game have been efficient above all else so far in 2018, taking care of the ball, completing a high percentage of passes, and taking down field shots when the opportunity presents. That said, Tennessee has taken their shot plays primarily off of play action, looking for explosive plays through the air after establishing the run. Inconsistent play from everyone other than Cleveland in the Florida passing game and the Vols' reliance on setting up the pass with the run indicates how important a strong running game will be for both teams today.
The Gators need to take pressure off of Franks and this offensive line that is prone to giving up big hits on him. They need to stay ahead of the sticks, on schedule, and out of third and long at all costs. Make no mistake, at least early in this game, Neyland Stadium is going to be rocking, and the noise will absolutely be a factor. In big night games, Neyland itself becomes almost a living entity at times, and when the Vols take advantage of that, it becomes one of the most difficult places in America to be a visitor. Franks does not have extensive experience starting in true road games, and Neyland is a place where that can have an impact. Franks has been prone to making some bad decisions in his young career with the Gators, and third and long with over one hundred thousand screaming fans bearing down can create mistakes from experienced signal callers. The Gators want to protect Franks, and the best way to do that is with an effective running game. This allows Florida to stay ahead of the sticks, utilize all of Dan Mullen's extensive playbook, and keep Franks out of situations where the Vols can predict what is coming. It also keeps them from becoming too one dimensional, something that can happen with Dan Mullen's offense, particularly if the run game is stymied early. Florida does not want to put this entire game on their young quarterback's shoulders, and as such, they need to find consistent success on the ground. The Gators don't need to be explosive when they run, just good enough to stay on schedule and make Tennessee's young defensive backs honor a play fake, potentially freeing up Cleveland one on one with a true freshman corner on a home run ball. Those are odds the Gators like. It is worth noting here, Florida will be down their top running back today, as Malik Davis is out with an injury sustained in the Gators loss to Kentucky two weeks ago.
The Volunteers rely far more heavily on the run than do the Gators, and success on the ground is absolutely critical to any hope they have of winning this contest. Like Florida, Tennessee has an offense that desperately needs to stay on schedule, which a healthy ground game helps. Unlike Florida, Tennessee does need to be explosive when they run the ball. Three of the most dangerous offensive players for the Vols in this young campaign all play at running back. That means if the Tennessee offense is hitting big plays, they are going to come via the run. Another difference from Florida is that the Gator offense looks to pass first, and while Jarret Guarantano and the Volunteer receivers are certainly capable of throwing the ball, Tyson Helton has set up his long throws almost entirely off of play action passes this season. This Tennessee offense is built on being balanced, and when that balance is there it can become very difficult to contain. The focus is going to be on the Tennessee offensive line. This is a group that has looked lost at times in all three games, but has also paved the way for long, run heavy, clock and defense grinding drives in each of those games as well. This unit has the talent to do what Pruitt and Helton want to do today, the question is whether or not they are ready to play mentally in terms of assignments and emotionally in terms of showing some fire. That said, this group, or any group for Tennessee for that matter, coming out flat in this game would be astounding.
Should the Vols get solid offensive line play, they have a stable of backs in Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Jeremy Banks, and Madre London that have each demonstrated the ability to dramatically impact a game this season while utilizing different skill sets. An effective Tennessee run game also sets a strong armed Jarret Guarantano up with one on one matchups for his extremely talented receivers down the field. To be clear, the Vols must run the ball well to have any chance of winning.
There are plenty of other factors in this game to be discussed, but none are even close to seeing which team can run and stop the run the best. Kentucky did not block particularly well in their win over Florida, despite a huge day on the ground for the Wildcats, Benny Snell made plays by exploiting poor tackling and tackling angles from the Gators, and gashing Florida for big runs when he did get sound blocking. Tennessee's offensive line is capable of blocking well in this scheme, however consistency is a question. Still, if the offensive line is adequate, the Volunteer backs have shown the ability to make opposing defenders miss one on one in various ways. All eyes are going to be on the trenches when Tennessee has the ball, as the Gators are likely to go as their defensive line does. When the Gators are on offense, look in the middle of the line. Expect to see more of Emmit Gooden in the Nose Tackle spot for Tennessee today, as he has been commanding the double teams imperative for an effective 3-4 defense, as well as making plays in the backfield. It may not be pretty, but the Nose Tackle play will be the barometer for the Volunteer defense whether it is Gooden or Shy Tuttle.
How the Vols handle Tyrie Cleveland will also be worth watching. Cleveland is the most explosive option available for the Gator offense, and it is a wide gap to second on that list. Florida wants to have a second receiver emerge or to run the ball well enough that Tennessee has to commit a safety to the box in order to get Cleveland one on one opportunities against true freshman corners Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. If Tennessee can keep Cleveland bracketed all day, with a safety over the top, it will prove difficult for Florida to manufacture big plays for him. If he gets his looks one on one, he is a threat to score each time he touches the ball. Mullen and Franks will take their chances on that match up each time they get it.
Beyond the battle in the trenches and the best running team likely leaving with a win, there are a few X Factors in this game. Briefly discussed above, look for Neyland Stadium to play an important role in this game. These fans feed off the team and off themselves. If Tennessee gets out to an early lead, begins making big plays, or has a close game late, the environment and the noise will absolutely be factors. Neyland Stadium, when it is at that fever pitch, is worth a touchdown itself. Do not underestimate the impact that this home field advantage can have. Florida will make taking this crowd out of the game early one of their primary goals. On the flip side, if things begin to go badly for Florida, this is an environment that can see them snowball out of control quickly, like they did in the second half of the 2016 meeting.
Speaking of that 2016 meeting, that brings up another X Factor, Jauan Jennings. Jennings had a monster game against the Gators the last time he was on the field against them, delivering a back breaking touchdown reception on Jalen Tabor to put the Vols ahead to stay. This season, coming off of injury, Jennings has not been on the field as much for Tennessee as many expected. However, his role has been expanding, as discussed by Jeremy Pruitt and demonstrated by his first touchdown of the season last week against UTEP. Jennings looks to be rounding into form, and for all of his skill on the field, and that skill is such that he is one of the best receivers in the SEC when fully healthy, it is his leadership and attitude that may be more important. Jennings is a fiery competitor, physical in his routes, fighting for receptions, after the catch, and especially in his blocking. He maintains an attitude that he expects his teammates to play up to. As one of the only players that was integral to the last Volunteer victory over the Gators, Jennings' leadership and experience will be important if Tennessee wants to pull the upset.
Finally, look for two additions from the JUCO ranks to have expanded, important roles today. On offense, Tennessee has barely utilized prized tight end recruit Dominick Wood Anderson. Wood Anderson has been on the field for most of the plays the Vols have had on offense, however, for some reason, plays have just not seemed to go his way. Wood Anderson is a weapon, and has flashed his ability when provided opportunities this season. In a game where the Vols want to keep safeties out of the box or make Florida pay for walking one down or doubling Callaway or Jennings, Wood Anderson has to be weapon. He is too valuable attacking the middle of the field, especially up the seam if safeties have to support the run, to barely be targeted today. On defense, look for outside linebacker Jordan Allen to see more snaps. Tennessee's biggest struggle on defense, bar none, has been in generating a pass rush. Allen was brought to Tennessee primarily to make an impact in that area immediately. The Vols know that getting pressure on Franks allows them an opportunity to blow this game wide open, and Allen is a piece that can facilitate that. Given the struggles of the front seven in that area so far, look for Tennessee to use Allen creatively today.
All those keys are well and good, but what do they add up to at the end of the day? Tennessee should be at least 4-1 in their last five meetings with the Gators, and likely would have been with even competent coaching. The worst team in Tennessee history should have beaten the Gators by at least 14 points last season in Gainesville. Florida is not a good team right now, and while the Vols may not be either, they appear to be better than the Gators again. For all the talk of Tennessee having no talent on this roster, the Vols have out recruited the Gators for the last four seasons. Tennessee has a coach now, and his biggest challenge will be to get through to his players that they can beat this team. Tennessee should win this game. Jeremy Pruitt is expected to have his team win this game, and this contest is by far the best measuring stick of who he is as a coach that will come this season. If Pruitt is the man to turn Tennessee around, he has to win this game, he has to help his players overcome the mental obstacles that have plagued the Vols against Florida for years, and he has to win this game at home. The nation is going to learn a lot about Jeremy Pruitt and his Vols today, likely that they were wrong about him and how bare his cupboard was. If the Vols establish the run early, which should be expected, they can impose their will on the Gators, set up explosive passes, grind the Florida defense, grind the clock with a late lead, and keep the crowd in the game to the end. An impressive day on the ground leads the Vols to a 31-14 win in Neyland Stadium.
As an aside, there is a potential for thunderstorms tonight, so the Vols could be looking at three weather delays in four games. Pack the ponchos with a smile though, Vol fans, because a rainy, muddy game favors Tennessee. Besides, as the late, great John Ward referenced it, who doesn't want to see a Tennessee win, “In the DOWNPOUR.”