GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Early Saturday afternoon, it looked like Tennessee was going to be at a real disadvantage heading into a much-anticipated clash between the Vols and Gators this coming weekend.
Tennessee watched defensive player after defensive player go down with injury in its win over Ohio, including a serious setback as preseason All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton is expected to be out for an extended period of time.
And yet, the most significant injury as it pertains to the SEC East’s top contenders was yet to come.
Later that evening, Florida lost starting quarterback Luke Del Rio to a knee injury late in the third quarter of its 32-0 win against North Texas.
That is the biggest storyline of the week as the No. 19 Gators (3-0) will roll with backup quarterback Austin Appleby on the road against No. 14 Tennessee (3-0) while looking to extend their 11-game winning streak in the series.
Here is more on Appleby and four other storylines for Florida this week:
1. What kind of QB can Austin Appleby be for the Gators?
Well, nobody outside of the Florida locker room really knows.
The Gators don’t open practice to the media beyond stretching and an early period or two a couple times a week. Before joining Florida as a graduate transfer in January, Appleby spent four years at Purdue. He started 11 games and played in 17 overall, passing for 2,777 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions along with 9 rushing scores.
But Purdue isn’t known for boasting a bevy of offensive playmakers, so how much can really be learned from those numbers? Appleby said Monday that he felt he had to score 40 points in every game he played for the Boilermakers to have a chance to win, and in so doing he was more aggressive in forcing throws than he would be in a different offense.
Then again, the Florida coaches clearly felt Del Rio was the better option as the two competed for the starting job in the preseason. When Appleby took over Saturday night, he helped lead two touchdown drives, but he was only asked to attempt four passes.
It would make sense for Florida to lean on its deep stable of rushers to take the pressure off Appleby, but at some point he’s going to have to make plays.
We will all know a lot more about the team’s new quarterback after Saturday.
2. Will Antonio Callaway play?
Florida coach Jim McElwain said Monday that star sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway still is “hurting pretty good” with the quad injury that sidelined him last week.
McElwain added that he didn’t know whether the Gators’ top target — who has 13 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns in two games — would play or not Saturday.
He also announced that Florida would be closing practice to the media entirely this week, which could be a move to prevent reporters from observing how Callaway is moving.
McElwain explained that decision by saying the team had some “new things to work on” that he wanted to keep in-house. Again, though, media never are allowed to watch anything more than stretching and usually the first period of practice, which often amounts to basic individual drills, so it would be hard to decipher any wrinkles from the gameplan anyway.
Whatever the motivation, it will be up to the head coach to provide a status update on Callaway during his final news conference of the week Wednesday. It will be a surprise if the standout wide receiver isn’t on the field Saturday.
3. The streak
Everybody on both sides of this rivalry knows the number.
Florida has won the last 11 meetings with Tennessee, an impressive run of dominance by one proud program over another.
That streak has been in peril the last two years. Florida needed 10 fourth-quarter points to eke out a 10-9 win in Knoxville in 2014, and last year in Gainesville the Gators needed a 63-yard touchdown pass from Will Grier to Callaway on fourth-and-14 to pull ahead with 1:26 remaining. They then watched as the Vols narrowly missed a 55-yard field goal in the final seconds to hold on for a 28-27 win.
4. Leg up in the SEC East
Florida won the SEC East last year in McElwain’s first season, and while there were plenty of reasons to believe the Gators would be even better this fall, Tennessee was instead the popular preseason pick to win the division.
Both teams come into this game 3-0, though the Gators haven’t faced a real test yet. The Vols looked lackluster in two of their three games, barely escaping Appalachian State in overtime in Week 1 and settling for a 28-19 win over Ohio last weekend.
Florida, Tennessee and Georgia are the only SEC East teams without a conference loss, and the winner between the Gators and Vols on Saturday will have a significant advantage in the standings moving forward.
5. Best defense in the country?
Statistically speaking, that’s the title Florida holds.
Sure, the Gators have feasted on inferior competition while shutting down Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Texas, but man, have they been dominant in doing so.
Florida has allowed an average of 129.7 yards per game, which is 75 yards better than any other team in the country. The Gators rank second nationally in both rush defense (42.3 yards per game allowed on the ground) and pass defense (87.3 yards per game). They also lead the country with 16 sacks.
They can legitimize that claim as the best in the country with a strong showing in their first truly tough test Saturday.