Vols-Gators Preview: Tables are Turned
It is the Tennessee Volunteers that are running an up-tempo, no-huddle, blitzkrieg offense instead of the Florida Gators whose offensive strategy is to slow the tempo down and milk the play clock as much as possible.
A shift in the balance of offensive weapons.
It is the Vols that have the offensive weapons this go-around. The Gators, without the ballistic missiles that have been so typical of the blue-and-orange that have given Tennessee so many headaches in years past, are trying to string games out by keeping possession for as long as possible.
Who does head coach Will Muschamp think he is? And where does he think he is coaching?
The Metamorphosis of the Florida Offense
Last season, it was speedsters like Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey who did the majority of the running, and much of that running was to the outside.
This season, without that type of weapon in his arsenal, Gator head coach Will Muschamp has taken the intelligent and pragmatic approach. He has implemented a very un-Floirda-like downhill running game, because that is what RB Mike Gillislee is best suited to do. He’s not an end-around speedster, but he is lightening-quick to the line, slashing between the tackles for substantial yardage.
And at the WR position, Florida has depth of talent, but the go-to guy hasn’t emerged.
So it is slow-speed ahead for now.
Sophomore QB Jeff Driskel made his first career start last week in College Station. Last season as a freshman, Driskel looked completely lost much of the time after the ineffectual John Brantley went down with an ankle injury. This season, he has been given the reigns after Will Muschamp seemingly played cat-and-mouse throughout camp and the season opener regarding who would become the No. 1 signal caller, Driskel or Jacoby Brissett.
The Gator staff has basically been drip-feeding Driskel the offense, similar to how the Vols’ former QB Jonathan Crompton was managed for much of his career. So far this season, Driskel’s biggest problem is that he holds on to the ball far too long, which might remind Tennessee fans of Matt Simms. Eight sacks last week was a result, leading to Florida leading the SEC with the most sacks allowed in 2012 with nine.
But Driskel is the kind of QB that can give defenses fits: he is very mobile. Sometimes that is a detriment to his play because, when in trouble, he will reflexively try to run out of danger rather than simply throwing the ball away.
Lucky for the young QB is that he has, at least so far, had a very effective running back in Gillislee who has been the focal point of the Gator offense so far in 2012.
Unlucky for the Gators is that Gillislee suffered a strained groin early during last week’s clash against Texas A&M but then returned to action and aggravated the injury during his 12-yard TD early in the fourth quarter. Florida cannot afford to lose production from the SEC’s rushing leader (231 yards) and one of three league players with 4 TDs. He has scored all but one of Florida’s TDs so far in 2012. So, the Florida staff has limited his touches in practice this week to ensure he will be able to start Saturday under the lights at Neyland Stadium.
For Once, the Defense is the Star in Gainesville
The Gator defense is a much-ballyhooed squad. The secondary is solid, and the DL is one of the strongest in the country and will regain the services of Ronald Powell sometime later in the season (Powell tore his ACL in the Spring Game).
The defense has registered four sacks and one INT in the first two games. The problem from the Florida perspective is these statistics are from 83 pass attempts. To be fair, their two opponents attacked with a short passing game, not the kind against which a high tally of QB sacks and pass interceptions are normally registered.
And that is perhaps the best way to avoid the Gator defensive front line. Senior MLB Jon Bostic was quoted this week as saying that the Gator DL “is getting mad with quarterbacks who get the ball out before they can get a pass rush they want to get.”
Not that Vol QB Tyler Bray tends to hold the ball for a few Crompton-like seconds. But the Tennessee m.o. is more of exploiting defenses deep into the secondary, or further into the wide-open home-run spaces. Bray hasn’t averaged 320+ yards a game with dinks and dunks. Instead, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Zach Rogers have been more of the bomb-catching variety so far in 2012.
So the Gators will likely attempt to do what they did in Gainesville last season: shut the Vol running game down so that they can fire up the pressure on the pocket from all angles.
But injuries are mounting for Florida. The Gators will be without two key defensive starters: OLB Jelani Jenkins (broken thumb) and CB Cody Riggs (fractured foot). Jenkins had surgery and will be out for at least four weeks. Riggs without surgery will be out a bit longer. A true freshman (Antonio Morrison) will start in place of Jenkins.
George Cafego Would Like the Gators’ Special Teams, If He Were So Inclined
A key part of the 2012 Gators, and one that the Vols would likely trade for in a heartbeat, are special teams. Returner Andre Debose is dangerous. And placekicker Caleb Sturgis could be the best in the country. If the Big Orange attack becomes frustrated Saturday night, Sturgis alone could win it.
Of course one of the big storylines for this game has nothing to do with what is happing now: Derek Dooley is 0-10 and Will Muschamp is 0-5 against nationally-ranked teams as head coaches at their present schools.
Hidden in this noise is the fact that both programs are undergoing a retooling process. Dooley’s project, as we all know, started in a much, much deeper hole than his contemporary and good friend Muschamp. But it is a good bet that both programs are on the mend for the long haul, whether or not Dooley and Muschamp are the long-term solutions for their schools.
Perhaps a sign of the times regarding this rivalry is that Saturday’s game is the first time since 2007 that both teams come into their annual clash nationally ranked (Florida was #5 while the Vols were #22). But this is all Tennessee’s fault, as no one in and around Knoxville needs reminding that Florida has won each of the last 7 meetings since 2005, and the Vols haven’t even been ranked at any time since 2008.
What’s Happening Now
Florida won its first two games this season in overall uninspiring fashion, at least compared with Gator standards, with a sluggish 27-14 win over Bowling Green and then a come-from-behind 20-17 victory on the road over one of the two newcomers to the SEC – Texas A&M Aggies. As a matter of fact, last week’s win was the first time since 2006 that Florida has come back from being down 10 or more points to win a football game.
In that game in College Station, the Gators played some pretty ugly football (the UF defense allowed TA&M to convert 70 percent of their third downs in the first half) until late in the second half when with 13 minutes remaining Florida was somehow able to wrestle the lead away from the home side and kill off the clock in the final minutes with a grind-it-out style of football more reminiscent of an Alabama than a Florida.
The Gators will have to get a much better start against the Vols this Saturday. And, they will look to repeat last week’s performance on defense where, against the Aggies, the Gators bottled up A&M RB Christine Michael to only 13 yards on 13 carries, and limited QB Johnny Manziel to 173 yards passing with no TDs.
But the Gators are facing a different animal in this season’s Game 3. The Vols have gained at least 500 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2000 — the first time this has ever happened in the first two games of any Tennessee season. This has translated to the Big Orange leading the SEC in passing and being in a tie with Georgia for the top spot in points per game.
This, along with a sellout crowd for a night game in Neyland Stadium accounts for the current point spread being 3 in favor of the Vols.
And the Crystal Ball Says…
This is the most anticipated Tennessee football game in recent memory. The game-hype meter is pegged all the way against the right side of the dial. And a 6:00 start will give that little extra edge to the home crowd than the more typical 3:30 start for this series.
Let’s hope that the weather system that is presently over the midwest holds off long enough to allow Neyland Stadium to bask dry in all its glory.
The Vols may have left a few tricks in the bag so far this season, both on offense and defense. The Gators are likely more solid than what they showed in the first three of their four halves played so far this season.
Thus, it is hard to say what this game will bring. But, strange things always seem to happen in this series, so I would expect nothing less on Saturday.
As a Vol fan, I fear Florida’s defense can stop the Tennessee ground game, forcing Bray and Co. to succeed above the levels that they have the past two seasons. But if the recent past is any indicator, it doesn’t take many plays for the Big Orange to lay down a couple of deadly strikes on offense.
It will likely come to turnovers, big plays, and the fourth quarter. So I think that when it is all said and done, the Gators will wish Cas Walker were still alive to dispense some of that Superderm Salve.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But something tells me our bad fortune has run its course and the stars are aligning themselves for something very special for the entire nation to witness.
Tennessee 31 Florida 26