KNOXVILLE – The intensity of the Tennessee-Florida game hasn’t changed, but the philosophies have.
It’ll be almost a complete reversal of many of the past 20 years when the No. 23 Vols and No. 18 Gators square off on Saturday. Tennessee will go no huddle, spread it out and look to set up the run with the pass.
The Gators will show a more run-oriented attack designed to wear down the opposing defense.
“They’re going to want it slow, and we’re going to want it fast,” coach Derek Dooley said.
It’s a stark contrast to the peak of the rivalry in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Gators, with quarterbacks such as Danny Wuerffel and Jesse Palmer, and an abundance of NFL-quality receivers would spread the field and pile up the points. The Vols looked to control the ground, and the clock, with running backs such as Jay Graham, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens.
“I want to score,” Dooley said when asked what caused the Vols change to a more up-tempo offensive attack since the end of 2011. “I did a lot of soul searching in the offseason about (how the up-tempo offense affects his defense). Defense has to go and stop them, but if you keep scoring it is harder and harder for the other team. I know that because I have been on the other side of it. I am not going to slow our guys down. I want them to play fast and I want them to have fun. If they score, let’s go stop them.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn, Texas and with the Miami Dolphins, is taking the opposite approach at Florida.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to score, but rather it’s a shift to a more physical philosophy that focuses more on running through a defense rather than around it or throwing it over the top. The idea is to keep his defense off the field while wearing down the opponent.
He’s upgraded the offensive line since last year, and he has a running back in the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Mike Gillislee, who is comfortable running between the tackles. Gillislee leads the SEC with 231 rushing yards through two weeks. He is also tied for the league lead in rushing toucdowns (4) with LSU’s Kenny Hilliard.
“Will [Muschamp] is starting to get his team to look like what he wants his team to look like,” Dooley said. “They are a pro-style and they are multi-formational, so they are going to try and get you out-flanked. We are going to try and be physical at the line of scrimmage and have a heavy back. That is his philosophy and they are starting to play Muschamp ball.”
More McCullers?: Nose tackle Daniel McCullers only played eight snaps against Georgia State last week. It wasn’t because he was playing poorly, rather Georgia State stayed most in a three-wide receiver look, forcing the Vols to place mostly in their nickel defense – a package McCullers is not in.
“He’s been good,” Dooley said. “He played a lot the first game. He’s not going to wow you with his space play. He’s 360 pounds, so it’s not a bad thing for him to have a role. He’s a nose, he’s good at it.”
McCullers expects to play more against Florida. He said he is prepared to play as many as 35 snaps against a physical team like the Gators.
“I should be comfortable out there against them,” McCullers said. “I think it’s the type game that suits me well.”
Tennessee injury update: It’s mostly good news on the injury front for the Vols. Linebackers Curt Maggitt (toe) and Herman Lathers (shoulder) were both working with the first-team defense on Tuesday.
“They moved around pretty good, they’re not 100-percent, but they moved around out there,” Dooley said. “We don’t want them to have a setback, but we’ve got to practice them.”
One surprise on Tuesday was the return of tight end Brendan Downs, who is just over a month removed from dislocating his knee. Downs, who was wearing a heavy brace on his left leg, worked some with the second-team offense on Tuesday. There’s a chance he could see some action Saturday.
“He’s moving at a faster pace than we expected,” Dooley said. “Before today I would’ve said there’s no way (he plays), but there’s a chance he could get 10 plays or so.”
Linebacker Christian Harris worked some with the third-team defense at inside linebacker. Dooley said he moved well and could play this week or next. Pig Howard was used as a slot receiver on the second unit on Tuesday.
Florida injury update: The news is not as good for the Gators. Starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins (thumb) is officially out for Saturday. The prognosis is the same for cornerback Cody Riggs (foot).
Gillislee has been cleared to play Saturday after suffering a minor groin injury against Texas A&M last week.
Defensive end Ronald Powell (knee) wasn’t expected to play against Tennessee regardless, but the Gators did announce that he likely won’t play at all in 2012 after having a setback in his rehab. Powell was hoping for a mid-season return.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.