It’s time for that time-honored Tennessee Football tradition, the masochistic ritual known as the Florida game. The Volunteers have lost to Florida five consecutive years and 16 of the past 17 seasons. Blowouts, heartaches, backup quarterbacks, Fourth-and-seventeens, and Felipe Franks‘ deep daggers; Tennessee has seemingly found just about every way to lose a game to Gators over the past 20 years.
But as it is in college football, hope springs eternal. Volunteer fans feel like Josh Heupel‘s arrival in Knoxville has finally turned the page from dysfunction to distinction. The Vols enter this contest ranked eleventh in the nation. ESPN’s College Gameday will be in Knoxville. And the Vols opened as 9.5-point favorites against Florida. And all of this should scare Volunteer fans. It’s a scene they’ve seen too often over the past two decades — a glimpse of hope crushed by a stinging defeat on a national stage.
Vols Host Florida: Three Things to Look For
Needless to say, the anxiety level in Knoxville will be turned up to 11 this week. Much of the contest on Saturday will depend on how Tennessee hands the mental aspect of the game. But Heupel’s team seems to have a different mentality. Heupel and his staff came from outside the SEC, as did many of the players. They’re aware of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry, and the drama on the Tennessee side. But they aren’t as tied to it emotionally as previous staffs and rosters were.
They’ll get acquainted with it on Saturday, but that emotional liberation during the preparation will benefit them. If the Vols can handle the mental aspects of this game, they have a very good chance of getting their first conference win of the season and ending Florida’s five game winning streak.
Handle the Pressure
Tennessee has done a decent job of handling unexpected pressure this season. They’ve committed too many penalties, but they’ve limited turnovers, they found a way to get a win against Pitt on the road, and they handled their business as expected against Ball State and Akron. But they haven’t had a mental test like this yet in Josh Heupel’s tenure. And much of that pressure is self-induced. Sure, there’s the normal pressure of a rivalry game, a conference opener, a Top 25 matchup, and Gameday on site.
But Heupel and his players will face endless questions about Tennessee’s dubious recent performances in this rivalry this week. Players and coaches might try to ignore it. But it’ll be as impossible as a visiting team not learning the Rocky Top tune after a game at Neyland Stadium. It’ll be everywhere on campus, omnipresent in Knoxville, and completely consuming the airwaves and Twitterverse. Luckily for the Vols, they have the uber-steady Hendon Hooker guiding the offense. Hooker’s intangibles might very well be the difference in this game, just as it was in the Vols win in Pittsburgh.
Can this upstart Vols team handle the pressure of being double-digit favorites with a top national ranking attached to their names? Both Heupel’s offense and Tim Banks‘ defense play aggressive styles that require quick and sound decision-making. Any mental clutter can frustrate any momentum Tennessee might be building.
What to Look For: A Clean Sheet: Win the both the turnover battle and have fewer penalties.
Keep Anthony Richardson In The Pocket
The book on Anthony Richardson is pretty clear from the first three games of 2022. Richardson utilized his legs to overcome the Utah defense and secure an electrifying win in the opening week of the season. But both Kentucky and USF bottled up Richardson in the pocket and forced him to win the game with his passing attack. Richardson was 14-for-35 for 143 yards against Kentucky and 10-for-18 for 112 yards against USF last week. Richardson doesn’t have a passing touchdown yet in 2022 and has four interceptions in the last two games. He’s had a total of 28 rushing yards over those last two games after putting up 106 rush yards and three touchdowns on the ground against Utah.
Look for Jeremy Banks to spy on Richardson and Aaron Beasley to bring the pressure from the second level. While Tennessee’s secondary is still improving after an extremely circumspect 2021, they are certainly better than USF and probably close to Kentucky’s secondary. Unless Richardson has a career game against Tennessee (as Florida quarterbacks are apt to do), Tennessee’s secondary should be able to keep Richardson’s arm from controlling the game.
What to Look For: <25 Rushing Yards for Anthony Richardson.
Establish The Run
Hooker and the Tennessee receivers have too much talent to not get their stats in the passing game. The true indicator of how well the Tennessee offense can control this game will be the rushing attack. And it will come down to how well the offensive line can handle an athletic and talented Florida front line and star Florida linebacker Brenton Cox. Gerald Mincey will face his old team. And if Mincey, Jerome Carvin, Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins, and Darnell Wright can open some space for Tennessee’s trio of running backs, Tennessee will be able to carry their lightning pace to victory.
But most importantly, the offense line has to push Florida’s front five in short yardage situation. Those key 3rd and 1s, 2s, and 3s will be critical to keeping Tennessee’s offense on the field and the defense rested on the sideline.
What to Look For: >50% 3rd Down Conversion and 150 Yards Rushing for the Tennessee offense.
Vols Host Florida: The Last Word
It seems too easy. The Vols are rolling and have high expectations. Florida seems to be struggling, especially with quarterback play. In the past, this was a recipe for disaster for Tennessee. But as painful as the masochism has been in Knoxville, and as stale as the program has been since Derek Dooley arrived on campus, the Heupel era seems to have a materially different feel about it.
Now’s the time to prove it.