When: Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. Time TBA.
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida at a glance:
Head coach: Will Muschamp (7-6 in 1 year at Florida)
Record against Tennessee: Florida leads 22-19 (Seven straight wins for Florida)
All-time record: 669-385-40
Returning starters: 7 (offense), 9 (defense), 2 (specialists, kicker and punter)
2011 overview: The Gators appeared on the way back to their contending ways when they won their first four games in 2011 over Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee and Kentucky by an average of 31.3 points. Then reality of life in the SEC set in. The Gators dropped four straight to Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia, leaving them with key injuries, questions and lost championship hopes. The revolving quarterback trio of John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskell never got on track. Speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, along with a stingy defense, kept them in many games, but their final mark of 7-6 was a disappointment to Florida fans with high expectations for Muschamp in year one.
Three matchups to watch:
1. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease vs. Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
Muschamp hired Pease, the offensive coordinator at Boise State in 2011, to replace former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Weis bolted for the head-coaching position at Kansas after the Gators finished a disappointing No. 105 in the nation in total offense at just 328.7 yards per game. Pease regularly helped produce top-10 offenses in his five years as an offensive assistant in Boise. He will have the challenge of replicating that success in Gainesville despite lacking a proven quarterback and experience at the other skill positions.
Sunseri replaces another former Boise State coordinator, Justin Wilcox, who left to take the defensive coordinator position at Washington after spending two years in Knoxville. Seven of 11 starters return from a unit that finished in the top 30 in the nation in total defense. He will have the task of replacing All-SEC defensive lineman and current Denver Bronco Malik Jackson and recently found out he will be without Izauea Lanier, a starting cornerback in 2011, who will be academically ineligible in 2012.
2. Florida pass rush vs. Tennessee pass protection
Ronald Powell, the Gators’ feared defensive end, will probably miss this contest as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the spring game. That doesn’t mean the Vols can relax. Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Earl Okine and Omar Hunter are among the veterans the Gators return up front. They are backed up by linebackers Jonathon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, both of whom are pass-rushing threats as well.
The Gators got to quarterback Tyler Bray as well as anybody the Vols faced in 2011. Florida’s three sacks and six quarterback hurries may not be eye-popping numbers, but the Vols protected their quarterback well all season —conceding only 18 total sacks in 12 games.
3. Tennessee running backs vs. Florida defense
The Vols historically have struggled running against the Gators, and 2011 was no exception. Running backs Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane combined for just 33 yards on 13 carries. Throw in a few bad snaps that turned into busted plays and the Vols actually finished the day in the red on the ground.
Tennessee will have to find some room in the run game to move the ball consistently against Florida. The Gators’ talented and experienced secondary will make it difficult for the Vols to make a living throwing all game. Even if they don’t gain huge chunks of yardage, the Vols need to have a better ratio of run to pass than they did against the Gators in 2011 (21 rushes to 48 passes).
How will it play out?
If the Vols come into this game 2-0, this could be one of the most anticipated games at Neyland Stadium in several years. Florida, as always, has some very talented athletes and a good defense. The question resides in the development of its offense — particularly at the quarterback position.
A strong argument can be made for Tennessee winning its first game over the Gators in eight tries. It won’t be easy though. One turnover or special team miscue could cost either team in this one. The Vols should be particularly nervous if this game comes down to the kicking game. Florida senior kicker Caleb Sturgis is one of the best in the nation.