Head coach Butch Jones and company head to ‘The Swamp’ this week as Tennessee opens SEC play against the Florida Gators.
Tennessee, coming off an absolute throttling of FCS-level Western Carolina, is looking to rebound from the heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Oklahoma in week two. The Gators are looking to keep the positive momentum going in the Jim McElwain era and continue their decade of dominance over the Vols.
It has been ten years since Tennessee has beaten Florida. While the Gators may lack the overall talent level of years past, they can’t be counted out, especially playing at home against the Vols. Florida opened as a three-point favorite.
Indeed, the last time Tennessee managed a win over the Gators, YouTube hadn’t yet been created, and many of the current players were still in elementary school.
The Tennessee-Florida rivalry dates back decades. However, it really caught fire in the early 1990’s when the SEC expanded and split into two divisions, giving the Vols and Gators a chance to meet every year. Led by legendary head coaches Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier, it quickly became one of the most heated rivalries in college football.
As of late, however, the rivalry hasn’t had nearly the amount of hype as it used to, with both traditional powerhouses experiencing a slump in their respective win columns.
Fortunately, for the sake of college football, it looks as if that might change this year.
After coming off an emotional loss in double overtime to the Sooners a week earlier, Tennessee came into the week three matchup against Western Carolina hoping to prove that they were, in fact, a force to be reckoned with, and that is exactly what they did.
“It was a big game for us to see how we would respond,” said Jones. “I thought our competitive character was challenged a little bit in how we prepared this week and how we’d come out in our approach to this game.”
Tennessee’s run game has been stellar early in the season. The trio of running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and quarterback Joshua Dobbs have racked up over 600 rushing yards and a combined 10 touchdowns through the first three games this year.
The Vols’ passing game looked much improved Saturday against Western Carolina as well. Dobbs started the game with a 25-yard strike to true freshman Preston Williams. Williams ended the game with a total of three receptions for 98 yards, including another touchdown from fellow true freshman quarterback Quinten Dormady. Dormady, the backup to Dobbs, played the majority of the game, coming in before halftime.
Tennessee’s special teams also put on a show against the Catamounts. With less than a minute left in the first half, Evan Berry took a kickoff 88 yards for a Tennessee touchdown. Later, Alvin Kamara continued the spectacle, returning a punt 50 yards for the score.
Florida has finally found its starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Will Grier. Grier started his college career off with a bang against New Mexico State completing 16 of 18 attempts for an impressive 166 yards and two touchdowns in a 61-13 blowout. He hasn’t looked quite as great as he did in the season opener, but Grier has still been able to get the job done.
“Obviously, he has a lot of growing to do,” said McElwain on Grier. “He did some good things with his feet and got us some plays, but that might have gotten him into some trouble as well by not staying in the pocket and letting the play develop.”
The Gators are coming off their first SEC win of the season, 14-9, against Kentucky. Florida’s defense was the deciding factor in the game, keeping the Wildcats out of the end zone the entire game and intercepting quarterback Patrick Towles twice.
“What a great win,” McElwain said. “These guys were into this game and played their hearts out. I’m awfully proud of them.”
All-SEC defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III was back in action against the ‘Cats after not playing in the game against East Carolina the week before due to a leg injury. He didn’t miss a beat. Hargreaves ended the game with four total tackles and one interception return for 43 yards.
Last year, when Florida came to Knoxville, it was Tennessee’s defense that looked like it could be the deciding factor, at least for the first three quarters. Early in the fourth quarter, the Gators scored on a Matt Jones run to cut the Vols’ lead to two, adding the go-ahead (and game-winning) 49-yard field goal later. Tennessee had a chance on a late fourth-quarter drive to win the game, but a Justin Worley interception dashed any hopes of a win.
This year’s matchup is, as usual, big for both Tennessee and Florida. Both young teams are looking to prove themselves early in the season. Tennessee wants to show their preseason ranking wasn’t a fluke and that they deserve to be back in the national spotlight, while Florida is hoping to disprove the national media who largely discounted them as a contender in the SEC East this year.
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on CBS.
Featured image by Clay Seal
Edited by Cody McClure
Matt is a sophomore journalism and electronic media major at the University of Tennessee. He enjoys watching any and all sports, and is an active member in the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. Follow him on twitter @mattraymond271