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September 20, 2013

Friday night primer

Saturday afternoon in the heat and humidity of Gainesville, Fla. the Vols look to end an 8-game losing streak to the Gators. For Butch Jones' squad, the first question everyone has is how will team #117 bounce back after last week's 59-14 thrashing at Oregon. Florida doesn't present the offensive challenges that the Ducks presented, but the Gators' offense creates issues of their own.

Florida's offense has become more physical under head coach Will Muschamp and Florida will run it right at Tennessee. But the Gators still have the spread element with quarterback Jeff Driskel really hurt Tennessee a year ago with his feet. Last year, Driskel rushed for 81 yards on 8 carries.

And there is Trey Burton who has been a thorn in the Vols side for his entire career. Last year, Burton had 86 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground and had 2 catches for 38 yards. Tennessee must defend Burton and defend the middle of the field better than they have the last two weeks.
Stats
Pts. scored 111 40
Avg. rushing yds. 244.3 192
Rushing defense 155.3 50
Avg. passing yds. 137.3 222
Completion % 59.4 70.9
Passing defense 275 158.5
3rd down conv. 16-36 44% 12-27 44%
3rd down defense 16-39 41% 2-24 8%
The Florida offense has struggled in ball security. Two weeks ago, they squandered their opportunity to win at Miami with 5 turnovers including 3 in the red zone The Vol defense has been opportunistic in forcing 9 turnovers which is tops in the SEC.

Up front, the Vol defense must have some young defensive tackles grow up in a hurry as they will be without both Mo' Couch and Trevarris Saulsberry in the defensive interior. Making you think that the Gators will attack the middle of the field both in the run and pass game.

For the Vol offense, the questions of how would the Vols score was debated throughout the spring and as the Vols enter SEC play the questions of who will make plays still remains. A week ago, Tennessee had one offensive play over 14 yards as little came easy. The Vol passing game is completing less than 60% of it's throws and is averaging just 137 yards a game. The results prompted Jones to declare the quarterback competition open, but expect junior Justin Worley to get the start.

Tennessee vs. #2 Oregon
Florida Field, Gainesville, Fla.
Kickoff: 3:30pm
Forecast: High 89

TV: CBS
Verne Lundquist (play by play)
Gary Danielson (color analyst)
Tracy Wolfson (sideline)

Radio: The Vol Network
Bob Kesling (play by play)
Tim Priest (color analyst)
Andy Kelly (sideline)

By the numbers

2009 - The last time the Vol running game hit the century mark.

50 - That's the number of yards the Florida defense is averaging allowing on the ground. Two weeks ago against Miami, the 'Canes had 49 yards on their first 8 carries, but only one yard on the ground the last 3 quarters.

4 - The number of offensive plays of over 20 yards through three games. Last week, the Vols had one play of over 14 yards against the Ducks.

Quotable
"They know what they're up against. They all have played against each other, so they know what to expect. Our players have a tremendous amount of respect for them, so they know the game situations and what it's going to entail to play winning football. They've been focused and they understand what's at stake and they understand the effort that it's going to take." - Butch Jones on his offensive line's challenge.
Tennessee's ground game is averaging 244.3 yards a game, but the ground game will be greatly tested this week against a Florida defense that is giving up an average of 50 yards a game on the ground. The Vol running game has lost an impressive 3 yards in 122 rushing attempts. But Jones is looking for more out of his run game.

"We have talked about when you run the football you can't have negative yards in our offense," Jones said. "Would I have liked to have been able to run the ball more efficiently (a week ago)? Absolutely. For us, we have to establish the line of scrimmage and this week it will be a tremendous challenge with their defensive front. They have a lot of Sunday bodies in their program, a lot of players that will play on Sunday. It will be a good test for us."

The other test again for the offense comes in converting 3rd downs and staying on the field. Florida has only giving up 2 third down conversions in 24 attempts this season.

KEY MATCHUP

The offenses ability to do something they haven't been able to do in a while which is run the football effectively. No Vol running back has hit the century mark on the Gators since Travis Stephens in 2001. The last time the Vols ran for over 100 yards as a team was in 2009.

A year ago, the Vols rushed for 83 yards. In 2011, Tennessee ran for -9 yards and in 2010, the ground game only produced 29 yards. With a passing game that is by no means high flying, the ground game is at a premium and the Vol offensive line knows it.

"With this game and how important the run game is going to be, we have to be physical," center James Stone said. "Their whole defensive front stands out. That's one of the strengths of their team. They really challenge the offensive line. That's something you look forward to. Having match-up's like that."

Florida's defense of the ground game has been beyond impressive. In two games the Gators have given up a total of 100 yards. Two weeks ago, Miami rushed for 49 yards in the first quarter, but only netted one yard the final three stanzas. Running the ball is Tennessee's biggest challenge Saturday in the Swamp.

For a closer look at the rest of the match-up's, check out How they match-up from Rob Lewis.

#TRENDING

The lack of big plays for the Vol offense is the biggest area that Tennessee must improve on. Everyone knew the Vols would have a drop off in big plays with everyone who left the program after last year. But how much this offense lacks big plays is a real concern. Tennessee's offense has just 4 plays in three games of over 20 yards.

"Two big plays, that's it," Jones said of his offense at Oregon. "Those two big plays occurred on our one scoring drive in the first half, I believe the second drive, first or second drive of the game. Again, we can't play perfect. Today's world of college football, you need big plays. We didn't have big plays, big chunk yardage, and we were forced to drive the football against a talented defense like Oregon. You're not going to have much success."

MAXIM THAT MATTERS

If at first the game or the breaks go against you, don't let up - put on more steam

The question surrounding this football team remains how do they handle things in a hostile environment and how do they handle things now that they have lost a game in an ugly fashion they way they did on the west coast.

"Then you're going in to another hostile environment," Jones said earlier in the week. "So, this week our whole mental focus, our mental conditioning, if you said what's the biggest area of improvement, it's becoming a much more mentally tough football team. Proving that you can go on the road and handle all the distractions that it takes in preparation before the game, but also on game day as well.

By no means will things go according to script and having to overachieve doesn't mean you have to play perfect. To get this game into the fourth quarter and to have a chance to win, the Vols must not wilt in the heat when things go against them.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES

Here we take a look at the Vols' game against the Gators from the view of Florida beat writer Brian Holt of Rivals.com's Inside the Gators.

What's the Gators injury situation like, particularly on the offensive front, with a bye week to recuperate?

Florida has two players whose health is in legitimate doubt for Saturday -- cornerback Marcus Roberson (sprained knee) and right tackle Tyler Moore (ankle). Roberson is probable for Saturday's game, while Moore is questionable and was not working out in pads as recently as Wednesday.

Aside from Roberson and Moore, Florida is healthy after a week of rest. Quarterback Jeff Driskel has been wearing a brace on his left knee but appears to be moving fine. Right guard Jon Halapio returns from a torn pectoral injury but will be wearing a restrictive brace around his left shoulder that could hamper him in pass protection.

The key to me is Moore. He hasn't been great as a tackle, but the Gators will have to go with Trenton Brown or Kyle Koehne at right tackle if he is unable to go. That would be plenty to stress over for Florida fans.

What's the view of the Florida offense, particularly as it rates to generating big plays in the passing game? Is the (apparent) lack of big plays a result of the receivers, Driskel, or offensive philosophy?

There is certainly nothing flashy about Florida's approach, but its offense is generally moving in a positive direction. Driskel is coming off a career-high 291-yard passing game and if it's not for a handful of bad throws, the talking point coming out of Miami is a UF offense finding its way.

The issues in question are a mixture of all three factors mentioned above. Florida's wide receivers are vastly improved compared to 2012. Quinton Dunbar has proven himself as a reliable target. Solomon Patton has rounded out his game and become a deep threat -- 118 yards in week two. Trey Burton has taken over the receiving duties held by tight end Jordan Reed last season and leads the team in receptions.

Driskel has the physical tools but continues to struggle with confidence and decision-making. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease's solution seems to be limiting his options and the decisions he is allowed to make, meaning Florida's offense could become even more conservative and focus on what it knows best: supplementing a top-tier defense with a mistake-free football.

Depth-wise Florida's defense looks as strong as ever, but may not have some of the same 'big-name' stars as in the past. Is that the case or are there some young players ready to step into a 'Matt Elam or Shariff Floyd' type role.

The defense is ultra-talented but does lack experience, especially in the front seven. That's the biggest reason why Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have preached consistency instead of patting defensive players on the back after games against Toledo and Miami. A move of senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins to safety after redshirt freshman Marcus Maye struggled against Miami now puts two fourth-year players at the back end of the Gators' defense in a previous area of concern.

Florida still has star players. It's just aside from Dominique Easley -- who is having his best year so far -- those players are in the process of building their names. Antonio Morrison is a rising SEC linebacker, Dante Fowler Jr. has underachieved through two games but should be a force in pass rush and Florida's cornerback position is as loaded as any in the country.

How much pressure are the players and/or coaches feeling coming off a loss to Miami and coupled with that, is there any distraction with Muschamp's name being tossed around as potential candidate at Texas?

There isn't a noticeable sense of pressure around the program -- not more than usual at least -- because of how early in the season the game was and the fact it was not a conference loss. If anything, the Miami loss was almost reassuring to the Gators in a weird way. It's almost as if they've seen how poorly they must play to lose a game with their current team and are confident they won't stoop that low again. Players have not shied away from talking about winning out and an SEC title and all the big-picture storylines all week entering the conference slate.

As for the Texas job, it hasn't been a discussion point around Gainesville. Until reports involving Muschamp become more substantial, it's difficult to imagine it getting brought up. And even then, it will get shut down quickly.

Were the turnover problems at Miami viewed as a fluke or was ball-security a huge concern coming out of fall camp.

Turnovers certainly weren't a concern coming out of fall camp. The Gators finished No. 8 in turnover margin last season at plus-15 and showed no signs of that changing entering the season. That said, "fluke" might not be the correct word either. It was a surprise for a conservative team that focuses heavily on ball control.

Like I said earlier, do not be surprised if this leads to an even more conservative approach, as Florida will not have room for error during SEC play.



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