Serious question to begin: Can this game be considered a rivalry anymore? A rivalry means both teams are consistently competitive against each other, and will beat each other on a regular basis.
Since 2005, Florida is 14-1 against Tennessee. There have been plenty of close games (2014, 2015, 2017), but Florida has found a way to come out on top all but once in the last decade and a half.
Going into the 2020 interaction of this game, Florida is a 17.5-point favorite against the 2-5 Vols. Tennessee is on a five-game losing streak, having blown double-digit leads to Auburn and Arkansas in its last two outings.
A win in Knoxville gives Florida the SEC East title, locking the Gators into a trip to Atlanta. There’s nothing more Tennessee would love than to spoil Kyle Trask’s Heisman campaign and derail the Gators SEC title dreams.
If Florida wants to avoid a let down in Rocky Top, they’ll have to win the following matchups.
Stopping Eric Gray
This is the most vital part of the game for Florida. Gray is essentially the Tennessee offense. He leads the team in rushing with 651 rushing yards and averages nearly five yards a carry.
He had his best game of the season the last time Tennessee played against Auburn, rushing for 173 yards on 22 carries and a score. Gray alone was the reason Tennessee could move the ball, as it allowed the Vols to set up play-action and hit crossing routes over the middle.
This will be an enormous test for the Gators linebacker group and their ability to tackle in space. This is an area the Florida linebackers have improved upon, but Gray will be the ultimate test.
“It’ll be a good challenge that we’re all excited for,” sophomore linebacker Mohamaud Diabate said. “He’s a great running back. We respect his game. We look forward to lining up against him on Saturday.”
Florida held Kentucky to 159 rushing yards a week ago (the Wildcats' posted 408 rushing yards on 13 more carries against Ole Miss, for reference), and it was due in large part by the tackling from Ventrell Miller, James Houston and Mohoumad Diabate. The trio was excellent in space, and they were filling run fits better than they have all season.
Gray is a much different back than what Kentucky brought to the table though. The Wildcat backs pick up yardage based on scheme, while Gray is a true bell-cow. Tennessee is very vanilla in their run blocking packages, but this works for Gray. He has an excellent burst through the line of scrimmage, and is a one-cut, get downhill type runner. He’s tough to bring down in the open field, so stopping him at the line of scrimmage is vital.
How Florida handled Georgia’s Zamir White is indicative of how they’ll fare against Gray. Aside from the opening touchdown run, the Gators did a superb job on White, holding him to 32 yards on six carries.
A lot of stopping White was due to sound gap integrity by the Florida defensive line. They’ve been up and done with staying in gaps this year, and the Kentucky game showed the downs (first half) and the ups (second half).
“You can’t void your gap too soon because, if you do that... good runners will run where you’re not. We’ve addressed that and worked on that.” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
Stop Gray, and make Jarrett Guarantano beat you. That tends to be a recipe for success against Tennessee.
Prevent another slow offensive start
After averaging over 28 points in the first half of games through their first six games, the Gators have scored 17 and 14 points in the first halves versus Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Florida failed to score on five of their nine first half drives in the last two games. The games where Florida has had the least amount of first half success has come against lower-level competition. It took the Gators nearly 28 minutes to get into the endzone versus Missouri after falling behind 7-6. After being tied 10-10 with Vanderbilt, Florida scored with 35 seconds left in the first half to take the lead. If not for a Kadarius Toney punt return at the end of the first half versus Kentucky, the Gators would have trailed 10-7 at the half more than likely.
The question is: Why is this?
Against Kentucky, it was a combination of mistakes and poor offensive line play. Florida fumbled on their second possession, Malik Davis dropped a third down pass (that was a bit high, but catchable) on their third possession, and a promising fourth drive was bogged down after a Stone Forsythe holding penalty on a screen pass to Trevon Grimes that resulted in a first down.
“We have to play much cleaner,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “We have to execute at a much higher level and not waste opportunities.”
Not to mention, the first half against Kentucky was one of the worst from the offensive line. The Gators rushed for only 16 yards, excluding the 15 yards on Dameon Pierce’s fake punt run. Also, Trask was under pressure quite often, and Kentucky rushed only four the majority of the half, and sometimes only three.
These mistakes need to be fixed for Florida to avoid the kind of first half they had against Kentucky. The Vols have the capability to do what Kentucky did to Florida, and that’s control the clock and nickel-and-dime their way downfield.
Once again, it’ll be important for Florida to find offensive success early and force Tennessee to have to play from behind. The Vols aren’t built to come back, and they’ve shown a severe lack of ability to play from behind all season.
Florida's offensive line vs Tennessee's front seven
As mentioned above, the Florida offensive line played its worst game of the season against Kentucky. In the first half alone, I counted seven pressures on 15 dropbacks, all created by a three or four man rush.
Tennessee does an okay job of rushing the passer. The Vols rank 7th in the conference with 16 sacks in seven games (just over two a game). However, Tennessee is now without their top pass rusher Kivon Bennett as he was dismissed from the team on Tuesday. He was tied for most sacks on the team with 4.5.
The right side of the Florida offensive line has to step up. Both Stewart Reese and Jean Delance have allowed the most pressures on the team, and they both had rough games on Saturday.
Despite these struggles, the pass protection this season, overall, has been quite good. Florida is 10th nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game, averaging one per outing. A lot of this is due to Trask’s ability to move in the pocket and recognize when he needs to throw the ball away, but credit has to be given where it’s due. The offensive line has allowed only four sacks in the last four games, and is a big part of Florida’s success offensively.
With that being said, solid offensive line play will help prevent the slow starts that plagued the Gators the last two weeks. Tennessee will probably employ the same defensive philosophy Kentucky and Vanderbilt did, dropping seven and eight into coverage and banking on their front four to stop the run. It’ll be vital for the O-line to be dominant in the run game, and prevent guys like defensive tackle Aubrey Soloman and linebacker Henry To’o To’o from getting in the backfield and putting Florida in third and longs.