Saturday will feature the first ranked matchup between No. 20 Florida (2-1) and No. 11 Tennessee (3-0) since 2017, with the Volunteers heavily favored to snap a five-game skid against the Gators and defeat UF for just the second time since 2005.
Ultimately, this game is going to come down to the success of the Volunteers' high-powered offense and the ripple effects it will have on the Gators, both defensively and offensively.
All Gators' three key matchups for the contest reflect that reality.
Gators' passing defense vs. the Vols' passing offense
The Gators' passing defense has been stout through the first three weeks of the season, ranking fourth in the SEC in completion percentage allowed (56%), fifth in yards per game (178) and second in interceptions (four).
Tennessee, led by quarterback Hendon Hooker, presents a different kind of challenge than the passing offenses Florida has previously faced provided. Hooker's touchdown-to-interception ratio across his 14 starts for the Vols is 34-to-2; he ranks fifth in the conference in completion percentage (69%), fourth in passing yards (821), third in yards per attempt (9.8), and is one of only three SEC starting QBs (min. 50 attempts) without an interception this year (along with Georgia's Stetson Bennett and LSU's Jayden Daniels).
Florida is specifically going to have to rely on its four-man pass rush to get home this week, with seven coverage defenders holding up on their end of the bargain. Hooker has been effective under pressure this year when he gets the ball out, going four-of-six for 67 yards and a touchdown. That being said, he's been sacked six times on his 14 pressured dropbacks.
He stands out against the blitz, though: 17-of-22 for 300 yards and two touchdowns against five or more rushers. He can quickly identify gaps in the defense when extra rushers are sent his way and get the ball to his check down.
If the Gators' secondary and linebackers can provide adequate coverage in the raucous environment, UF's four-man rush could find some success that ultimately slows the Vols down. That won't be an easy task against such an up-tempo offense and it will certainly test the unit's discipline.
Star Vols receiver Cedric Tillman's status is in doubt to an ankle injury which could benefit the Gators, but five other Tennessee wide receivers have scored at least one touchdown through the first quarter of the season. Jalin Hyatt's production is basically identical to Tillman's this year, having posted 17 receptions for 244 yards and two touchdowns.
Anthony Richardson vs. Hendon Hooker
Hooker has proven to be an efficient quarterback with the arm to push the ball down the field and the athleticism to make plays with his feet — not as physically or athletically gifted, but essentially the type of dominant quarterback many have envisioned in UF's Anthony Richardson.
Should Hooker lead the Vols' offense down the field and consistently put points on the board, Richardson is going to need to step up in a big way compared to his performances over the last two weeks.
In an ideal world, a successful Florida run game will be able to limit Tennessee's offensive opportunities. But in all likelihood, Richardson will need to put together several big drives that end in touchdowns in order to keep up with the Vols.
UT doesn't possess a great defense, but the unit will surely put an emphasis on slowing down a UF rushing offense averaging 212 yards per game. The unit has been stout against the run this year, allowing just 83.3 yards per game.
It won't matter if Richardson produces through the air or the ground, either will do as he's done neither over the last two weeks. His conversion down passing will need to be sharp for the Gators to remain in rhythm, and he'll need to take advantage of rushing opportunities when they arise.
This is a huge test for Richardson, not only because it is the first true road start of his career but also due to his need to bounce back from consecutive poor performances. If the Vols' offense is as good as advertised, the Gators are going to have to depend on Richardson to keep an upset victory within reach.
Florida's discipline vs. Tennessee's tempo
Sensing a pattern with these matchups? Florida is going to have to do a lot to combat Tennessee's offensive firepower.
The Gators' defense is going to have to be on its Ps and Qs against an offense that strives to consistently play up-tempo. Tennessee is averaging 2.99 plays per minute this season, ranked No. 21 in the FBS in plays run despite having a negative average time of possession at 26:34 per game (No. 116 in the country).
"What we're seeing on tape is that Tennessee is running plays before the chains can even get lined up," Gators linebacker Amari Burney said on Wednesday. "That's what we've been working on in practice. I mean, their tempo is one of their biggest strengths, just how fast they're running plays. Their run-game. They've got good receivers out there. Really, their tempo is like crazy fast."
Florida won't be able to afford costly penalties such as offsides or illegal substitution while trying to keep up with Tennessee's offense. Understanding alignment and seamless communication between all three levels of the unit, something freshman linebacker Shemar James may be tasked with if veteran Ventrell Miller is unavailable, will be crucial.
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