The No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers (3-0) are set to open their SEC slate with a matchup against the No. 20 Florida Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) in Neyland Stadium.
The fast start for the Vols has created a tangible excitement in Knoxville as Tennessee has surged up the AP Poll rankings. This buzz has been met with the University announcing the game as a Checker Neyland game and ESPN’s College GameDay hosting their show on UT’s campus.
After grabbing a ranked win on the road over Pittsburgh, Tennessee returned home to take on Akron in a tuneup game. The Vols rolled to a 63-6 win without breaking a sweat.
Hendon Hooker dazzled with 298 passing yards and two touchdowns in just over a half of play. His favorite target was Jalin Hyatt who finished with 166 yards on five receptions for two long scores. Jaylen Wright led all rushers with 96 yards and two touchdowns.
After the score inflated to an insurmountable margin, Tennessee emptied the bench. Joe Milton continued his impressive play in relief with 112 yards and two touchdowns on just five pass attempts. Freshman Dylan Sampson scored twice, as well, through 57 yards on eight carries. Reserve receivers Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White and Walker Merrill combined for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, it was a team effort as multiple players got reps at every position. The team combined for four sacks, 11 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. Freshmen Elijah Herring and Tyre West were both responsible for two tackles for loss.
Despite the dominating win, the game is still seen as a failure by some for the Vols’ inability to stay healthy. Starting running back Jabari Small saw just two carries before going down and he never returned to the game. Following this loss, star wide receiver Cedric Tillman suffered an injury and also didn’t return. Tillman has been ruled out for the game on Saturday.
Florida got off to a hot start when knocking off then No. 7 Utah at home to begin the season. The Gators jumped into the AP Poll following the win and quarterback Anthony Richardson began receiving national attention.
However, the following week, Kentucky came to the Swamp and downed the Gators 26-16. Florida’s offense sputtered in the second half, failing to score after halftime.
Most recently, USF came to Gainesville and gave Florida a hard time in the Gators’ 31-28 win.
Through these three games, Richardson has averaged just 141 passing yards, 0 touchdowns and 1.3 interceptions per contest. After grabbing the spotlight against the Utes, he has slowed down and shown his issues as a passer. His strength remains in his running ability, though, where he’s already claimed three touchdowns.
Surrounding Richardson are young backs sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr and freshman Trevor Etienne. The pair have combined for 135.3 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game in the first three games.
At receiver, Florida boasts a trio of Ricky Pearsall, Xzavier Henderson and Justin Shorter. They combine for an average of 99.3 yards per game. All are yet to catch a touchdown.
The passing aspect of the Gators’ offense has fallen behind and they will likely elect to push the ball on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, Florida hasn’t been bad defensively but also hasn’t jumped off the page. They’re allowing 26.7 points per game and forcing just over a turnover. They’re struggling at getting to the quarterback, though, forcing just a single sack per game.
Vols vs. Gators History
Tennessee and Florida have a long history of hatred that hasn’t been lost despite the one-sided record of recent. The Gators have claimed 16 of the last 17 matches with the Vols only claiming the 2016 home affair. The total series is at 31-20 in the favor of Florida dating back to 1916.
In the teams’ matchup in 2021, Florida smacked Tennessee in a 38-14 win in the Swamp. This was head coach Josh Heupel’s first SEC game as a Vol and his first game on the road. Tennessee only trailed by three at halftime but failed to score for the remained of the game.
Hooker got the start and recorded 221 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. Richardson did not make an appearance in the game.
Following the Week 4 meeting, Tennessee got their season on track finishing with a 7-5 record while Florida fell apart and ended up firing head coach Dan Mullen.
5 Key Goals to the Game
Win the turnover battle
Hooker is yet to throw an interception this season and this trend needs to continue on Saturday. Tennessee can’t afford to give Florida free possessions through turnovers and give the struggling Gator offense easy opportunities. The Vols also need to force turnovers of their own and make Richardson uncomfortable throughout the game.
Strike early and often
Last year, Tennessee was one of the best teams in the country in the first quarter. However, so far in 2022, the Vols have struggled out the gates. A repeat of Tennessee’s trip to Pittsburgh won’t fly against its SEC rival and a quick start is necessary. The Vols need to get on the board quickly and continue to push the ball down the field to start the game.
Make Richardson throw the ball
Richardson is a force when keeping the ball on the ground but has yet to find true success through the air. Tennessee needs to keep him in check on runs and force him to make plays in the air. If the Vols can put Richardson in situations where he must make big plays with his arm, then Tennessee will likely find success.
Spread the ball on offense
Against Pitt, Hooker was locked in on Tillman throughout the game. With Tillman inactive, Hooker will need to look more at receivers such as Hyatt and Bru McCoy. Focusing on one player will make the offense one-dimensional and possibly ineffective. If Hooker can keep the defense guessing, though, it’ll open up more of the offense.
The last key is for the over 100,00 fans that will be jammed into Neyland Stadium. This will be Florida’s first away game of the year and a rowdy crowd could make a difference. Staying into the game from start to finish will make an actual impact in making it tougher for the Gators to operate.
This game has very similar aspects to the 2016 matchup between the two teams. 3:30 on CBS, ESPN’s GameDay and Checker Neyland. I expect a similar result, as well.
Unlike 2016, though, it’ll be Tennessee who takes an early advantage. The Vols will finally get on track early in a game and put pressure on Florida to make plays immediately. Tennessee won’t take its foot off the gas and come away with a long-awaited win.
Hooker will pass for over 250 yards and connect on multiple touchdown passes. Hyatt will continue his momentum from his big night against Akron and catch a touchdown while recording over 100 yards.
The run game will still struggle but Small and Wright will push the ball at an effective enough rate to reach over 100 yards combined.
The defense will have its issues but ultimately contain Richardson. He will connect on his first passing score but it won’t be enough to catch up with Tennessee’s electric offense.
Tennessee – 38
Florida – 24
Game Time and Coverage
Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. in Knoxville, Tenn. at Neyland Stadium. The game airs on CBS and TNJN will have more coverage following the game.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org