We may look back on this Tennessee game as the critical juncture of the 2017 season for this Florida Gators team.
The fan base was embarrassed by the performance against Michigan. The Gators were blown out, despite being gifted two touchdowns by Michigan. And the suggestion by Jim McElwain at the postgame press conference that the team needed to spend more time in the weight room — particularly when it seemed like there wasn’t much of a coherent offensive game plan — only served to make things worse.
Because of Hurricane Irma, McElwain and his team have had to listen to the doubters for two straight weeks. Much like the Ron Zook era, there is now a website whose sole purpose is to unseat a Gators coach, albeit the offensive coordinator. And the hurricane not only forced the team to wait, but it also eliminated what was perceived as a much needed tune-up for this week’s opponent. Tennessee, meanwhile, experienced an emotional overtime win over Georgia Tech and looked great in a tune-up against Indiana State.
If social media is any indication, McElwain can ill-afford to start the season 0-2 or his seat is going to get mighty hot. So are the Vols primed to take it to Florida in the Swamp on Saturday, or can the Gators right the ship against Tennessee?
2016 season comparisons
As always this early in the season, we start with what these teams accomplished in 2016. Both teams posted identical 9-4 records. Tennessee had the vastly superior offense last season, scoring 12.5 more points per game than Florida. But the Gators countered with a superior defense, allowing 12 points per game less than Tennessee.
Despite total point differentials of the two teams being almost identical, the way expected win percentage is calculated indicates that Tennessee overachieved by a game while Florida deserved to win its nine games. Much of the Vols’ success came against inferior opponents. Wins against Appalachian State, Ohio and Tennessee Tech bolstered Tennessee’s point differential.
While the Vols did win out-of-conference games against Virginia Tech and Nebraska, Tennessee really struggled within the conference. This is reflected by a negative point differential in the SEC. If you break that down to common opponents (five SEC East opponents, Alabama, and head-to-head), the difference is even more in Florida’s advantage, 7.1 to -0.1.
This isn’t to say that the Volunteers weren’t dangerous. They defeated No. 14 Florida and No. 16 Virginia Tech. But they got stomped by Alabama and lost to supposed inferior teams such as South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
The takeaway here is that Florida was the better team in 2016, and it wasn’t particularly close. Yes, the teams had identical records. And yes, the Volunteers were one Derrius Guice leap from being able to play Vanderbilt for the chance to go to Atlanta. But had the Hail Mary against Georgia fallen harmlessly, as it does most of the time, Florida would have locked up the East prior to the game against LSU.
So has Tennessee made gains to close that gap? Or will Florida be able to maintain the edge it showed in 2016 to defeat the Vols?
In the second-half comeback last season, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs absolutely shredded the vaunted Florida defense. In fact, Dobbs has terrorized the Gators for the past two seasons. Thankfully for Florida, Dobbs is gone. In his place steps Quentin Dormady, a junior who had seen only mop-up duty until this season.
Dormady lit up Indiana State last week but struggled against Georgia Tech, averaging fewer than 6 yards per attempt and completing 54 percent of his passes. Trying to parse which one is the “real” Dormady is a difficult task because of the differences in competition and the small sample size. Did he play better against Indiana State because he was getting more comfortable? Or did he play better because they were an inferior opponent?
I think it is likely the latter explanation. I say this because at Boerne High School in Texas, Dormady completed 56.9 percent of his passes his senior season. He did throw 32 touchdown passes, but threw 14 interceptions. As I’ve shown previously, statistics such as completion percentage do appear to correlate from high school to college. Based on his high school stats (and much of his collegiate record), Dormady is a serviceable quarterback, but isn’t spectacular.
And while he’s only thrown one interception this season, those 14 in high school really stick out to me. Florida may have an opportunity to take advantage if he is truly prone to trying to force the ball.
That was the issue on this play against Indiana State last week. Dormady was facing a third-and-5 and clearly didn’t want to take the field goal. The Sycamores dropped into a zone, indicated by cornerback Rondell Green (1) dropping back before the ball is even snapped. He clearly has that back zone and Dormady throws it anyway instead of checking down to his running back or tight end.
Of course, Florida’s quarterback situation is about as murky as it gets. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks played fairly well in limited action, but it’s hard to get excited about nine attempts. Malik Zaire was even worse, completing only 52 percent of his passes and averaging 6.2 yards per attempt.
As much as I criticize Butch Jones (and I will again below), his decision to stick with Dormady when he struggled early against Georgia Tech was wise. Dormady won the job in camp and he stuck with him. At this point, Dormady has two full games of experience in the Tennessee offense, and Florida’s only quarterback with a full game of experience in this offense is Luke Del Rio.
Offensive skill players
If Florida had its full complement of suspended players, this one wouldn’t even be close. Tennessee lost its leading receiver (Josh Malone) to the NFL and has lost its other established wide receiver (Jauan Jennings) to injury.
That leaves Tyler Byrd, Josh Smith, Latrell Williams, Brandon Johnson and Marquez Callaway at wide receiver for the Vols. But Byrd and Williams are questionable for the game with undisclosed injuries, and Smith is probable after missing the past two games with a sprained AC joint.
Callaway and Johnson are the only receivers to catch a pass this season who will play Saturday. Williams didn’t catch a pass last year, either. Smith only caught 13 balls. In fact, running back John Kelly is the Vols’ leading receiver with 10 catches on the season. Kelly also is the leading rusher, averaging a solid 5.6 yards per attempt.
Johnson, Williams, Smith and Kelly were all 3-star recruits compared to 4-stars Callaway and Byrd. This doesn’t mean that these receivers aren’t dangerous, but their talent level doesn’t come close to what Florida had to face against Michigan.
Jim Harbaugh used his talent and 4-wide formations to force Florida’s linebackers to cover Michigan’s wide receivers, particularly inside. The Volunteers coaches have no doubt seen that on film, but the question is whether they have the talent to take advantage with all the injuries. Tight end Ethan Wolfe likely will play a big role as he is a proven pass catcher. But he struggles to block, so the question is whether the Vols will be able to keep him on the field.
But on the other side, it’s hard to know what to make of Florida’s skill players. It’s pretty clear that barring any suspensions being lifted, wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland is the best player on the field. The Gators would be wise to throw it up to him whenever he is isolated in 1-on-1 coverage.
Lamical Perine also had a significant role in the passing game in 2016, but that was noticeably absent against Michigan. In fact, Mark Thompson came in on most third downs, curious since Perine’s role originally was likely to relieve starter Jordan Scarlett.
The potential is there. Dre Massey, Kadarius Toney and Malik Davis all showed bursts when they got the ball. They just didn’t get the ball enough. That’s on the coaches, not the players.
Florida has more star talent, but it’s just impossible to know who will emerge as a difference-maker. I’m tempted to think it will be Cleveland, but this probably isn’t where the game is decided.
Offensive line comparison
The Vols offensive line brings back much of what was a pretty good unit in 2016. Senior Jashon Robinson slides from left guard to center. Jack Jones takes over at left guard after backing up at right guard last season. Sophomore Drew Richmond and senior Brett Kendrick come back to man left and right tackle, respectively. The new man on the line is the right guard, freshman Trey Smith.
The Vols do come into the game with a depth issue. Tackle Chance Hall was lost to a season-ending knee injury and tackle Marcus Tatum is questionable with an undisclosed injury. If Tatum can’t go and there is an injury to either Richmond or Kendrick, Smith is likely to step in. While he was a 5-star recruit, playing tackle in the Swamp as a freshman would be a difficult ask.
Tennessee’s offensive line is plenty talented, though. It boasts an average star ranking of 3.8 and has an average of 2.8 years of experience, even with Smith starting. In Football Outsiders 9 advanced offensive line metrics, the offensive line ranked 46.1 out of 128 FBS teams in 2016 and averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt (36th).
Compare that to Florida, whose offensive line ranked 67.2 in those same advanced metrics and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt. The offensive line certainly didn’t do anything to improve those numbers against Michigan, averaging 0.4 yards per rush and allowing 6 sacks.
One interesting thing to note, though, is that the Gators averaged 5.4 yards per attempt at home but only 2.4 yards per rush away from the Swamp in 2016. Part of that is level of competition, but part of that may also be snap-count related.
I went back and watched every snap from the first quarter against Michigan, and there’s definitely a tendency. On every play where Florida had motion, the snap came immediately after the player in motion stopped.
And on every play where Florida was in the shotgun, the moment Feleipe Franks’ leg comes down, the snap comes. You can see it clearly in the play above, and you can also see Michigan linebacker Devin Bush (10) time his stunt perfectly with the snap.
It is not entirely clear whether coaching or talent is the main reason for the Gators’ offensive struggles. But this issue lies directly with the coaches. Tennessee has watched this tape. If the Gators don’t get a critical first-down conversion because of a Volunteers offside penalty on a hard count, heads need to roll.
Whether coaching or talent, Florida’s line was inferior to Tennessee’s last season and has shown to be this season as well. This probably is the Vols’ largest advantage. And while the team that wins the rushing battle typically does win, in this game it likely is critical as it will indicate who gets the upper hand up-front.
The offensive differences — particularly at the skill positions and at quarterback — are really close. Defense is really where Florida differentiates itself. Florida was the 6th-best defense last season based on points per game against FBS opponents. Tennessee was 78th.
While the Gators lost a lot of talent to the NFL, I’ve outlined previously how the replacements got game experience last season. More importantly, those players showed explosiveness when they got in the game, generating tackles for loss on 10.8 percent of their total tackles.
Tennessee’s defense returns more total tackles, but those players are significantly less explosive, accounting for 4 fewer sacks and 6 fewer tackles for loss. Gone are defensive linemen Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett, who accounted for 20 of Tennessee’s 31 sacks last season.
This has been reflected in the first two games. Granted, sacks are tough to come by against Georgia Tech. But because the Yellow Jackets run so much, there are plenty of opportunities for tackles for loss. And Indiana State isn’t a juggernaut that should be able to block the Tennessee defensive line. However, in its first two games, Tennessee only has 12 tackles for loss. That amounts to 6.1 percent of the total tackles and indicates a real lack of explosiveness.
Florida — on the other hand — illustrated explosiveness last season and continued that trend against Michigan. While there were times that Florida’s line got pushed around, the Gators still managed 11 tackles for loss and 5 sacks on 70 total tackles. That amounts to 15.7 percent explosive plays.
Tennessee has lost linebacker Darrin Kirkland for the season with a meniscus tear. And out of the Vols’ five leading tacklers last season, four were defensive backs. Compare that to Florida, which only had two of its five leading tacklers as defensive backs, and one of those was Marcell Harris, who was constantly brought into the box to help against the run.
It is true that Florida has a lot of inexperience in the secondary. But Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner are better than anyone Tennessee will put out there, and the Gators ranked sixth in yards per pass attempt last season. The 2 interceptions against Michigan seem to indicate that the secondary still has the potential to be dangerous.
Tennessee was 49th in yards per pass attempt last season. The Vols do bring back four returning starters, so they should see some improvement. It is impossible to tell how much because of the opposition thus far. As strange as it is to say, Florida is going to have the most explosive passing attack that Tennessee has faced thus far.
Tennessee doesn’t look to be much better against the run this season. The 535 yards allowed against Georgia Tech could be dismissed because of the triple option. But to give up 122 to an Indiana State team that really had no passing threat indicates that Florida’s running game might get healthy this weekend.
Throw into that mix the lack of explosion on the defensive line and Franks should have time to throw. And I’m interested to see what Dormady can do if Florida is able to bring the same kind of pressure it brought against Michigan.
Jim McElwain was outcoached against Michigan. He didn’t have a good game plan, and Harbaugh exploited all of Florida’s weaknesses by trusting his players to run complex play designs.
But Butch Jones is not Jim Harbaugh.
Last week, I introduced a metric comparing a coach’s recruiting rankings versus how he finishes in the AP poll. For the previous five seasons, any team that has had more than a 10-unit difference between the two has fired its coach.
By that metric, Jones is about to get fired. He has significantly underperformed his recruiting rankings season after season. McElwain has not. And while you could claim that Jones took over a worse situation that McElwain, Jones has underperformed his recruiting ranking by 13 units the last two seasons. This isn’t just because he took over from Derek Dooley. This is who he is.
While from the outside it is fun to mock the “Champions of Life” statements and the trash can motivational ploys, the fact is that Jones just isn’t that great of a coach. He makes in-game decisions that repeatedly cost his team wins.
His decision not to go for two against Florida in 2015 after going up by 12 in the fourth quarter was inexcusable. But even in victory, he makes decisions that make winning harder for his team.
Against Georgia Tech — as the Vols were driving for the game tying touchdown — the offense refused to drain the play clock when it got into Georgia Tech territory, giving Tech an extra 15-20 seconds. The Yellow Jackets used that extra time to gain another 20 yards after getting the ball back, setting up a short field goal. The fact that the field goal was blocked is irrelevant. Jones’ clock management on the drive before put his team in jeopardy.
As I’ve outlined in detail before, McElwain doesn’t typically make those kinds of mistakes. He uses his timeouts well. He goes for it on fourth down when it makes sense. And that is why he has been able to amass a 7-1 record in one-score games while at Florida.
If the game is close and demands decision making from a coach, Florida fans should be glad McElwain is on their side.
The Vols have a large advantage on the offensive line and likely a slight advantage at quarterback. The Gators have large advantages on defense and at head coach. What skill position player steps up is anyone’s guess.
My expectation is that Florida’s defensive line is going to be able to slow down Kelly while consistently putting pressure on Dormady. If that’s the case, expect the Tennessee offense to struggle. The Vols can win if there are similar communication issues in the Florida secondary that were exposed against Michigan, allowing a couple of quick scores.
But I also expect Florida’s offense to play better. Nobody is going to mistake this offense for the St. Louis Rams with Kurt Warner at the helm, but expect Perine to put up more than 100 yards and Franks to throw for around 220. Franks isn’t going to turn over the ball because Tennessee isn’t going to be able to stop the run or get consistent pressure.
And it really isn’t possible to understate the Butch Jones factor. The day after the Georgia Tech win, Jones bragged about a four-year study he conducted with Bengals coach Marvin Lewis while at Cincinnati about when to ice the kicker. The conclusion? Call timeout just before the snap for inexperienced kickers and immediately for kickers with experience.
Jones called two timeouts to ice Shawn Davis, Georgia Tech’s kicker. Davis had never made a field goal, had missed one earlier in the game, and was making his first career start. So what did Jones do? He called both timeouts immediately, going against his four-year study to follow his gut. Why do the study if you’re not going to follow its direction?
Tennessee wants to win this game. Florida needs this game. The home crowd is going to be fired up after the hurricane, the loss to the Vols last season, and two weeks to stress over the Michigan game.
And if it is even remotely close, count on Butch Jones to go with his gut rather than what he should actually do.
Florida wins, 27-20.