By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— ESPN’s College Game Day is in Knoxville, Neyland Stadium is set to be checkered, and the Tennessee Volunteers are undefeated, ranked, and heading into a prime-time showdown against a ranked Florida team.
This may sound like a rewrite from 2016, but, lone and behold, it is in fact what is set to happen at the University of Tennessee on Saturday as No. 11 Tennessee (3-0) looks to open conference play against No. 20 Florida (2-1) at Neyland Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:30 P.M. EST on CBS.
As one would expect from Josh Heupel and his high-temp offense, the Vols enter Saturday’s SEC opener as the third best offense in the nation, totaling 553.7 yards per game. Tennessee doesn’t just move the ball, but they score it as well, totaling 52.0 points per game (leads SEC).
The Vols began their season by swiftly taking care of Ball State before heading to Pittsburgh to take down a top-25 Pitt team in overtime. Tennessee is coming off a win over Akron where they put up 63 points in yet another offensive explosion.
Their offensive attack is led by none other than sixth-year quarterback Hendon Hooker, who, after taking over as the starter in Week 3 of 2021, has come into his own in Heupel’s offense.
So far through the first three games, Hooker is fourth in the SEC in passing yards (844), third in the SEC in passing touchdowns (6), and is one of three SEC quarterbacks to have not thrown an interception this year. Hooker’s 176.11 passer efficiency is good for third best in the SEC (behind Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett) as well as 19th best in the country.
And the kicker: Hooker has only played a little over eight quarters in three games.
Tennessee have proven to be one of the nation’s best offenses, and a large part of that is due to Hooker’s leadership and success on the field. However, the sixth-year quarterback isn’t the only offensive weapon the Vols have. Tennessee has proven that it has one of the most talented receiving cores in not only the SEC, but also the country. Led by Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt, and newly acquired Bru McCoy, the Vols have a variety of different playmakers that help make Hooker’s job much easier.
Tillman, who had nine catches for 162 yards and one touchdown in the win against Pitt, is Hooker’s favorite target. The 6-3, 215-pound wideout has proven to be an all-around receiver in his time as Tennessee, beating guys with both speed and physicality. However, due to a leg injury sustained in the win against Akron, he will be OUT against the Gators.
With Tillman out, all eyes turn to Hyatt, who finished with a career day against Akron after having five receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns, is Tennessee’s speed guy. He can line up both outside and in the slot, and use his speed to create mismatches against opposing defensive backs. Look for Hyatt to have a productive day against the Gators.
And finally McCoy, the transfer out of USC. After having a drama-filled offseason pertaining to his eligibility, the 6-3, 230-pound wideout has proven to be Tennessee’s “bruiser,” who can bully his way down the field. In his short stint at Tennessee, McCoy, who wears the number 15, has shown a likeness to another former Vol wide receiver who wore that number.
The Vols’ backfield consists of a “community-style” run game, who Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright getting a bulk of the carries. However, especially after Small went down with an injury against Akron, freshman Dylan Sampson proved to be a viable second option, showing his blazing speed and rushing for two touchdowns last week alongside Wright’s two.
Florida’s Offensive Struggles
The Gators took down a top-10 Utah team in Week 1 and were immediately thrown into the top-15. However, after struggling and losing to Kentucky, then struggling but escaping USF, the Gators find themselves just inside the top-25.
Florida’s offense is led by quarterback Anthony Richardson, who through three games has not put up the statistical numbers that his talent warrants. Richardson has completed 53.7% of his passes for 423 yards, with zero touchdowns and four interceptions (for comparison, Tennessee backup QB Joe Milton III is 12-14 for 225 yards and three touchdowns and zero interceptions this year).
Richardson has made up for his passing struggles with his incredible mobility, rushing for 134 yards and three touchdowns on 24 attempts. In fact, the Gators’ offense relies on their rushing ability, and have the fifth most rushing yards (636) and yards per game (212.0) in the SEC. The backfield combination of Montrell Johnson Jr. (240 yards, 9.6 avg, 2 TD) and Trevor Etienne (166 yards, 7.5 avg, 2 TD) have proven to be enough for the Gators so far.
Tennessee enters Saturday as a whopping 10.5-point favorite against the Gators, something that has not been seen in a while. Despite Tennessee proving to be the statistically more talented team both offensively and defensively, there is one thing that the Vols have a disadvantage in: the mental game.
Tennessee has lost 16 of the last 17 matchups, with the only win coming in 2016. For the Vols, the Florida game is supposed to be one of their rivalry matchups, however they have been on the wrong side of the matchup in the past two decades.
If the Vols want to take this game from Florida, they are going to have to start fast. Tennessee hasn’t scored a touchdown in their opening drive yet this season, but they’ll need to do it against the Gators.
Tennessee also needs to get multi defensive stops. With Florida’s run game, they will try to keep the ball out of Tennessee’s hands. So look for the Vols’ defense to be aggressive in the run game.
Saturday’s matchup is a chance for the Vols to finally flip the script, as they are the more talented team. Combine that with the atmosphere created by College Game Day and the checkered Neyland and Tennessee has nearly advantage in the game.
I think this game is going to be closer than a lot of people are thinking. The spread is in double-digits due to Tennessee’s high-powered offense, however, I believe Florida will bring its strongest game against the Vols on Saturday. That being said, I think Tennessee will pull away late, overpowering that Florida defense that has struggled.
When Dan Mullen was fired, my prediction was that Tennessee would down the Gators in Neyland Stadium, and I’m sticking to it. Tennessee will repeat 2016 and win against Florida, 38-28.