With the No. 6 Florida Gators set to take on the Tennessee Volunteers, a matchup that will ultimately decide whether the Gators win the SEC East on their own, or with a little help from Georgia, the team must continue to assert its dominance within the SEC, starting upfront with its defensive line.
Over the course of the season, the Gators have not appeared as the dominant defense one is accustomed to seeing down in Gainesville, at least not consistently.
While there have been plenty of moments, the team simply hasn't been able to put together a complete game. However, against the Volunteers on Saturday, it could face one of its toughest challenges yet. Within the trenches.
The Gators' defensive line has been efficient this year, particularly against the pass. They've sacked the opposing team's quarterback 23 times, leading the SEC. They've also been dominant as a team in the tackles-for-loss category, leading the SEC with 6.18 TFL per game.
Where Florida has not had an overwhelming amount of success, however, is at the point of attack, holding gap integrity consistently. A physical offensive line, for example, could wear the defense down, allowing for long, sustained drives. Florida saw some of that against Kentucky last week, allowing an 14 play, 87-yard drive during the first half of the game.
Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham addressed the team's gap integrity during his press conference on Tuesday and emphasized the need to play with that in mind against good running backs.
"When you face good runners, good runners run where you’re not," said Grantham. "If you have a gap, you’ve got to secure your gap. Even though we’re going to be a gap and a half team, we’re going to secure our gap, but as our gap no longer gets threatened, we’re going to shed and get to the next half gap based upon where the ball is.
"You can’t void your gap too soon because, if you do that, like I said, good runners will run where you’re not. We’ve addressed that and worked on that."
Against Tennessee, Florida will face a "good runner" in running back Eric Gray, the heart of the Tennessee offense. On the year, Gray has rushed for 651 yards on 132 carries (4.9 yards-per-carry) and four touchdowns. Gray has also caught 22 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. For perspective, Tennessee has thrown just six touchdowns thus far this season.
The Gators’ defenders understand that stopping the run against Tennessee will be the team's No. 1 priority, not necessarily stopping redshirt senior Jarrett Guarantano.
“He’s a great thrower, but I think the main thing for us as a defense is to stop the run, make him play quarterback," Gators linebacker James Houston IV said when asked about the Tennessee signal-caller. "Play fast as corps, aggressive. Get him out of the game and get somebody else in there.”
The Tennessee offensive line features two studs within its interior, including transfer right guard Cade Mays and senior left guard Trey Smith. Both players are physically imposing road-graders that dominate the opposition. The key will be to play stout up front, limiting movement.
Defensive linemen such as Kyree Campbell, Zach Carter and TJ Slaton will play a major role in slowing down Tennessee, thus forcing them to turn to its passing game, a weakness Florida will have to no doubt exploit.