Photo credit: Alex Shepherd, AllGators.com
The Florida Gators are set to host the Tennessee Volunteers in The Swamp this Saturday at 7 P.M. for the 51st rendition of the SEC East matchup.
The Gators have been nothing short of dominant over the Vols since the turn of the 21st century.
Winning 15 of the last 16 matchups (and holding a 30-20 record all-time), the Gators have altered the yearly matchup between the two squads from a back and forth battle into a severely watered-down version of the former rivalry.
Playing against a freshly remodeled Tennessee coaching staff — and roster in many key spots — the Gators will have a chance to build on their momentum gained in the last three-quarters against Alabama and their dominance over the team traveling from Knoxville under the lights on Saturday.
To do take advantage of the evident separation between where the two programs stand with a convincing win, UF will have to win battles against the strengths of the Volunteers squad.
Here are AllGators' three key matchups that can determine the outcome of the week four bout.
Florida Gators Defense vs Tennessee’s Tempo
Faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. However, in the past, quickened pace has caused the Gators' defense to falter.
To install a fresh offensive system at Tennessee, new head coach Josh Heupel has made it a point move quickly, the very thing that took his former team, UCF, to uncharted heights for a group of five program.
Running 3.08 plays every minute — the highest rate of any team in the NCAA by a rather wide margin — the pace that Tennessee operates at can be a daunting task. Specifically, Florida can be — and have been — affected in numerous areas.
Operating a defense that stresses communication due to the advanced scheme ran, Todd Grantham has often seen his unit struggle with teams that like to move fast.
Given the lack of time in between each play, Florida’s usual style of constant rotation and pre-snap adjustments can be thrown off in the controlled chaos that is a fast-tempo offense. This will force Grantham and the company to deviate from their usual game plan
This week, there is a focal point to keep the Tennessee offense from dictating the pace of the game and connecting on explosive plays, as they like to target deep down the field.
The tempo hasn’t resulted in increased efficiency for Heupel’s unit, at least yet, from what the team has produced in recent years — ranking 63rd in total offense through three weeks — but the necessity to be attentive and communicate efficiently is a weight that rests on the shoulders of all defensive players.
All in all, one mistake can be the difference against a fast, explosive-play-based offense. The Gators will have to play sound defense in week four if they want to come away with a bounce-back win and meet the lofty expectations on Saturday.
Gators Edge Rushers vs Cade Mays
Here we are again, talking about the importance of creating pressure on the quarterback.
Last week, the focus was on rattling a relatively efficient young quarterback in Bryce Young with a constant attack from the front seven.
This week, the emphasis lies with creating pressure on a team that has yet to announce their starter at quarterback for week four — while each of the options has struggled with decision making.
As a result, Florida’s defense will have chances to force turnovers with pressure up front, mainly off the edge. The matchup of the heavyweights will be the area to watch, with Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox and other edge rushers up against right tackle Cade Mays.
Totaling nine sacks to start the year, the Gators have wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines. Turning said pressure in three turnovers (one interception, two fumble recoveries) the Gators have bounced back from the abysmal showing in 2020 to assert themselves defensively yet again.
However, Mays is the most veteran player on the Volunteers line and has been a good addition for them since coming over from Athens. He has allowed no sacks and just one pressure on 196 snaps this season, elite numbers for the 6-foot-6, 325-pound senior who is still adjusting to his switch to right tackle.
He has also only been called for one penalty, proving to be sound technically as well as on the stat sheet.
The ability to win reps against the best will decide the effectiveness at which Florida can penetrate the backfield and force Joe Milton or Henson Hooker into making errant throws for Florida defensive backs to grab.
Florida Special Teams vs Tennessee Special Teams
In the Gators near-upset over the Alabama Crimson Tide last week, the third phase of the game proved to be the deciding factor.
Missing the extra point after Florida’s first touchdown drive — capped off a 26-yard run by Malik Davis — Chris Howard’s lapse would linger on the scoreboard as UF made their comeback attempt in the second half.
Forcing a late two-point conversion attempt to tie the game at 31, the Gators were stopped short of the goal line and the game was effectively ended with 3:10 remaining on the clock. If the extra point would have been made, UF would have had to opportunity to kick another to make it 31-31, likely sending the game into overtime.
Failing to make the routine plays with consistency can plague good teams from being great. As a result, the Gators special teams unit is a concern going forward.
According to ESPN’s College Football Power Index and Efficiencies, Florida is currently ranked 104th out of 130 teams in special teams efficiency on the season. Tennessee ranks 29th.
Velus Jones Jr., who is arguably the best player on the Volunteers roster, has found success operating as a return man, doing so in all five years of his collegiate career.
Returning seven kicks for 197 yards — just over 28 yards per return — and a long of 38 yards, the USC transfer has created favorable field position for the Tennessee offense.
Due to his explosiveness and success on kick return, Jones has assumed duties at punt returner this season, returning three balls for 32 yards including a long of 25. He returned a kick for a touchdown with the Trojans in 2019.
TL;DR: Stop Velus Jones. He’s good.
On the flip side, Florida needs to find its footing in the return game, looking to Xzavier Henderson — who has the best return of the season thus far — as well as Ja’Markis Weston and Davis.
Field position has yet to matter for the Gators this season and was exemplified last week when Emory Jones led UF to a 99-yard scoring drive last Saturday after a special teams lapse.
However, that is not a sustainable practice.
Florida needs to increase their starting field position to win the marquee matchups they are set to play the rest of this season — particularly Georgia.
The Gators should be able to control the contest with the dominant run game they have employed through three games — and proved to be legit against Alabama — how much they win by will be decided on special teams.
If they limit Tennessee’s explosive plays and remain consistent themselves, they could meet the wide 19-point margin that Vegas projects. If not, it could be an awkwardly tight game that makes outsiders question if their tight battle with Alabama was simply playing up to the competition.
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