The 46th meeting between Tennessee and Florida, and the Volunteers’ latest shot at ending the Gators’ decade-plus of dominance, has been maimed.
A host of ankle injuries hobble the Volunteer defense, and the Gators will visit Knoxville without their starting quarterback (knee) and an offensive guard (eye surgery). The lack of certainty on Florida’s offense, paired with Tennessee’s depleted defensive unit has both SEC East rivals limping into Saturday’s meeting.
The largest hump Tennessee must overcome is the stigma of the game. It’s present any time the Volunteers suit up against Florida, and with the hype that Team 120 has garnered, it’s stronger than ever. But, entering a matchup with one of the program’s biggest rivals without the presence of key players, makes this matchup with the Gators even more complicated. It doesn’t help matters that there is also even more national spotlight on this game than usual.
As far as who is ruled out for Saturday’s bout with the Gators, the passing defense will take the biggest hit. All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton is out “for an extended period of time” according to coach Butch Jones. A fractured ankle suffered in last week’s game against Ohio not only sidelines Sutton for Saturday, but for an indefinite amount of time. The injury to Sutton makes an already weak secondary even weaker.
Fortunately for the Vols, the passing game is where the injury bug bit Florida as well. On a controversial hit in the third quarter against North Texas, quarterback Luke Del Rio went down with a knee injury. In less than three full games, the transfer and son of NFL head coach Jack Del Rio had thrown for 762 yards for six touchdowns. Without Del Rio, who was becoming a solid signal caller for coach Jim McElwain, the Gators will be forced to field backup Austin Appleby under center.
While Appleby does have more on-field experience than Del Rio, the output isn’t very assuring. In his 2014 and 2015 seasons at Purdue, Appleby threw for a combined 18 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. A tendency to not take care of the ball is not exactly a recipe of success when you’re rolling out a backup quarterback for his first start in the SEC. The fact that it’s on the road, against a division rival and at one of the largest stadiums in the country, makes it that much more concerning for the Gators.
Another injury concern for Florida is star receiver Antonio Callaway. While he’s expected to play after missing last week’s game against North Texas, it’s unclear whether he is at full strength or not after his quadricep injury. If Callaway sounds familiar, or maybe his number 81 rings a bell, it’s because he was the one who scored the 63-yard game-winning touchdown against Tennessee last year. Including that game-altering score, Callaway caught five passes for 112 yards. If Callaway is limited, the Florida offense could be forced to be even more one-dimensional.
That is a problem that can potentially affect the Vols as well. Last year in The Swamp, Dobbs only completed 10 passes for 83 yards. And that was without Tabor, arguably the best corner in college football, on the field. With Tabor and counterpart Quincy Wilson’s skill and sheer confidence, the Gators are looking to make Neyland a no-fly zone for the Tennessee secondary.
While the Vols’ secondary is without its ring leader, the Gators’ passing game is also without theirs. That leaves this game to a fight between the trenches.
That is exactly where the Vols’ strength lies.
With pseudonyms of “Chain Moving Gang” and “Thunder and Lightning”, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara make up one of the SEC’s most dynamic rushing attacks. And like Florida saw first-hand last season, quarterback Josh Dobbs is a lethal threat on the ground as well.
Against the Gators in 2015, the Volunteers ran for a total of 254 yards, led by Dobbs with 136 and Hurd with 102 and two touchdowns. So far in 2016, though, the offensive line has been a liability in replicating the same sort of explosiveness we saw from Tennessee last season.
Junior Coleman Thomas has struggled his way down the line, leaving the Volunteers to experiment with different combinations upfront. But despite how beaten up the Vols are heading into Saturday, they are returning a starter that’s been desperately missed — especially by this struggling offensive line.
Starting in the last seven games of 2015, Chance Hall turned heads at right tackle. But, after his All-SEC Freshmen performance, he’s been sidelined for the first three weeks of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery in August. Now, he’s back on the practice field and is reported to be ready to go against the Gators. With his presence, the Vols should find some normality. And with his motivation to return to the gridiron, the running game will benefit from the much-needed extra push he will provide.
An “extra push” is exactly what Tennessee will need against this Florida defense. “This is probably the best defense we’ve faced since I’ve been here,” said coach Jones. Through the first three games, the Gators lead the nation in scoring defense and sacks, they are second in the country in passing defense and fourth nationally in rushing defense.
This defense, by far the toughest Tennessee has faced to this point in 2016, will force the Vols to move quickly if they want to find gaps in a so-far flawless unit.
On the other side of the ball, the Vols’ defense will be tasked with slowing down the Gators’ offense.
While it was quarterback Will Grier and the air attack that exposed the Tennessee defense in 2015, Florida is set to run the ball more heavily, utilizing the variety of weapons in their backfield. Against North Texas, the Gators had four different backs reach pay dirt. With so many weapons, Tennessee’s run defense will be tested, especially without a couple key players.
Middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is still out with a high ankle sprain. Kirkland, second in the conference for tackles by freshmen in 2015, was having a stellar start to his sophomore campaign playing the middle of the field. In the season opener against Appalachian State, Kirkland tied his career-high with nine tackles and at the Battle at Bristol, he added seven and a sack before his injury.
Colton Jumper has manned the middle of the defense in Kirkland’s absence. Jumper has struggled so far to find his footing for the Vols. Along with Kirkland, defensive end LaTroy Lewis is also missing his second consecutive game with an ankle injury. While Lewis is not a starter on Tennessee’s loaded defensive line, his impact has been felt this season more than ever. In just two games, Lewis had already accumulated 10 tackles, while he only recorded 29 in all of 2015.
Without Kirkland and Lewis, the defense has lost much of the precise tackling that they typically bring to the table. But, the Vols aren’t fretting as much now as they were early last Saturday, when captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down with a shoulder injury. It’s just a muscle strain, and Reeves-Maybin will be on the field, but Tennessee dodged a bullet there.
Reeves-Maybin is the heart of the defense and an explosive athlete capable of breaking up plays all over the field.
11 years is a long time for a program to go without a win over one of its primary rivals. There are players like Reeves-Maybin, who is a team leader in his fourth and final season on Rocky Top, looking to lead his team in its biggest test yet — finally ending the streak before his time is up.
Then there’s Austin Appleby, Florida’s backup quarterback, who is looking to join the fraternity of backups to shock Tennessee fans.
Both teams will hit the field on Saturday with depleted squads looking to capitalize on the other’s weaknesses, rather than imposing dominance.
Tennessee and Florida collide on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Andrew Bruckse, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Dalton, a firm believer that sporting events are best spent on Twitter, is an Assistant Sports Editor for TNJN and a sophomore studying Journalism at the University of Tennessee. Two of his favorite pastimes include beating his roommates at 2k and remaining in awe of the amount of stories fellow editor David Bradford writes. Twitter: @dk_writes