Tennessee at Florida
When: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013; Time TBD
Where: Gainesville, Fla.
Florida at a glance:
Head coach: Will Muschamp (18-8 record in three seasons at Florida)
All-time record: 680-387-40
2012 record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 5 (offense) 4 (defense)
2012 overview: Florida’s 2012 campaign was a little bit of a roller coaster, but when it was all said and done, there were many more highs than lows.
The Gators slugged their way to six consecutive hard-fought wins to open the season. There were multiple scares along the way. Bowling Green made it interesting into the fourth quarter in the season opener. The Gators trailed UT and Texas A&M at halftime before pulling out both road wins. Impressive wins at LSU and over South Carolina were somewhat spoiled by a disappointing 17-9 loss to Georgia that ultimately cost UF the SEC East crown.
The Gators limped through unimpressive wins over Missouri, Louisiana-Monroe and Jacksonville State before finding their stride again in a 37-26 win over in-state rival Florida State. That momentum was again lost, though, in a disappointing 33-23 loss to former UF defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
Through the ups and downs, the Gators did find a future quarterback in Jeff Driskel and continued to build their identity under Muschamp as a physical team that runs the ball and plays good defense. They finished third in the SEC in rushing (187.7 yards/game) and second in scoring defense (14.5 points given up/game).
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can UT shake its recent Florida history?
Even in years where the talent level seemed similar, Florida has owned Tennessee on its way to an eight-game winning streak over the Vols. Last year’s loss in Knoxville was particularly frustrating for UT. The Vols held a 14-10 lead at the half in front of a sold-out Neyland Stadium. Florida roared back with a 27-6 advantage in the second half to take the relatively easy win. Florida’s dominance in The Swamp has been even more impressive. Tennessee last won there in 2003 and the Vols have just three wins there since 1971.
2. Who steps up for last year’s playmakers?
There will be a lot of new faces in key spots for both teams. Multiple high NFL draft picks are gone from both sides including UT receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson along with Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam.
Florida running back Mike Gilleslee, a key player in the 2012 matchup, will also be gone. The Gators will likely turn to sophomore Matt Jones, who looks more like a linebacker at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, at running back. Containing Florida’s run game and making Driskel beat them through the air could be UT’s best shot at staying in this contest.
3. Can Florida put a more consistent product on the field in 2013?
The Gators looked nearly unbeatable in some games last year. They also looked like a mid-level SEC team at times. Muschamp and Driskel found a way to gut out several victories last year, but Florida fans would like to see a slightly more consistent product in ’13. Perhaps Tennessee’s best chance is to catch the Gators on an off day and hope for a few good bounces.
How will it play out?
History is stacked against the Vols in this one. Not to mention that Florida is the better team overall. The Gators hold the talent edge at a majority of position groups, including a notable advantage when stacking up Florida’s athletic defense against Tennessee’s questionable offense. Driskel was a liability at times in 2012, but his experience and ability to scramble should still put plenty of stress on UT’s rebuilding defense.
And though this is an early-season matchup, the schedule works against the Vols in this one as well. They’ll have just one week to recover from a grueling trip to Oregon and then must prepare to face Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama in three of their next four games.
This game isn’t at the overall difficulty level as trips to Alabama and Oregon, but it’s not too far behind given UT’s history in Gainesville. Expect Florida to win by at least a couple of scores with the possibility of a blowout looming if the Vols can’t move the ball consistently.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga