Tennessee and Florida clash in early SEC East matchup

Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing skid to Florida last year, but can they start its own streak in 2017?

The Florida Gators' football team lines up for kick off against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Nov. 11, 2006. Photo courtesy of creativecommons.org, no changes made.

The game that had the SEC on standby for a couple days was finally announced on Tuesday by the Florida athletic department as safe enough to play. The Gators cancelled their original home opener versus Northern Colorado, and now they get to open up against SEC East rival Tennessee. Hurricane Irma can take away many things, but it cannot take away the yearly rivalry between the Gators and the Volunteers.

Tennessee unloaded a giant burden last year as they snapped Florida’s 11-year winning streak. For years it seemed as if the Vols could not do anything right against the Gators.

In 2013, Florida trotted out Tyler Murphy – its backup quarterback – after starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the entire year. Somehow the Volunteers found a way to lose by two touchdowns. In 2014 and 2015, Florida managed to find a way to win each game by one point.

Butch Jones took a lot of heat for not going for two after the Volunteers took a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter in 2015. It ended up being costly as former Florida quarterback Will Grier threw a 63-yard touchdown to Antonio Callaway with 1:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, putting the exclamation point on a 28-27 Florida victory.

After 11 long years, the Volunteers took care of business last season in their Smokey Grey uniforms. In front of a checkered orange-and-white stadium packed to the maximum capacity of 102,455, Tennessee rallied off 38 consecutive points to down Florida 38-28, after being down 21-3 at halftime.

This is a new year for both teams. Florida is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start to a season since 1971, and Tennessee is trying to beat the Gators for a second consecutive year – starting a streak of its own. The Vols started off 5-0 last year, but ended the season with losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

Tennessee is off to a nice start this season under Jones, as they scraped by Georgia Tech in double-overtime in their opener in Atlanta. The Vols then decimated FCS opponent Indiana State last weekend, 42-7.

Quinten Dormady is leading the Volunteers offense this year, and has done about as well as expected. Dormady led the offense against Georgia Tech on several scoring drives with little-to-no rhythm, and the offense only possessed the ball for 18 minutes during the game. Dormady’s poise in the season opener stood out amongst everything else, as he drove the Volunteers down the field on a 93-yard drive with 2:37 remaining in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

John Kelly is the workhorse tailback for the Volunteers. This season, Kelly has been breaking an absurd amount of tackles for his small frame. Listed on the depth chart at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds; Kelly plays like he is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. After losing star running back Alvin Kamara to the NFL draft in May, Kelly has stepped in and filled the role nicely.

Florida’s offense was shut down in its opener versus the Michigan Wolverines in Arlington, Texas. The Gators could not find its answer at the quarterback position, as neither grad transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt freshman Felipe Franks could not find a rhythm.

Both Florida quarterbacks combined for just 181 passing yards and zero touchdowns, and finished with a combined quarterback rating of 27.6. Florida doesn’t get any help this week as star wide receiver Antonio Callaway and lead running back Jordan Scarlett are still under investigation by the Gainesville Police Department. The University has not released any news on the players.

The key to this game will be the quarterback position for each team. Florida intercepted two balls last week and took them to the house. If they can repeat that this week, it could be tough for Dormady to regain his composure in the swamp. On the other hand, the Gators quarterback, whoever it may be, will need to find the endzone. Florida posted a measly three points on offense against Michigan.

If Jordan Scarlett does not play for the Gators this week, senior Mark Thompson will be carrying the workload in the backfield. Thompson was held to 13 yards in the opener, and backup running back Lamical Perine carried the ball seven times for 8 yards.

On the defensive side, Jordan Sherit is the leader for the Gators. Sherit recorded two sacks against the Wolverines, and Cece Jefferson recorded a sack as well. These two were in the Wolverines backfield the entire game, so expect to hear their names called several times on Saturday.

For the Volunteers, the defense lacks a true leader thus far in the season. Last year, the unquestioned leader was Derek Barnett – but the Vols lost him to the first round of the NFL draft. Senior Cortez McDowell and Daniel Batuli have stood out the most in two games thus far, but look for senior Todd Kelly Jr. to make several big plays in this game, as he always shows up against the Gators.

The wide receiver edge goes to Tennessee, as wide receiver Marquez Callaway is becoming a true threat on the outside for Dormady. Senior Josh Smith was in Knoxville for the upset win last year, and he is likely to return this week, while Josh Palmer and Jeff George gained valuable reps last week against Indiana State. Ethan Wolf will need to have a big game for the Volunteers this week, as he caught a touchdown last year against Florida. Sophomore Brandon Johnson caught four balls for 50 yards and one touchdown last week. The young Tennessee receivers are being to come into their own.

The question mark for Florida is whether the quarterbacks can even get the ball to the receivers. Zaire or Franks should have more success than last week, as Michigan is a proven defense, but they did not have a warm up game like Tennessee did last week. Florida’s offense should start slow and will be something to watch if its offense can find a rhythm.

PREDICTION

Florida’s offense lets them down yet again, and while the defense does all it can, it won’t be enough. Tennessee takes a close one in Gainesville for the first since 2003, as the Vols win 27-24.