GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As if a Florida-Tennessee showdown needed extra story lines, the No. 19 Gators (3-0) will head into this matchup in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday with a new starting quarterback and the No. 14 Vols (3-0) will be without their top cornerback.
Florida fans are hoping backup QB Austin Appleby can fill in aptly for injured starter Luke Del Rio and help the offense do enough to extend the Gators’ 11-game winning streak in the rivalry series.
But the Gators’ defense has earned the spotlight this week after an utterly dominant start to the season.
Florida has allowed just 14 total points through three games while leading the nation by a wide margin in total defense at 129.7 yards per game allowed.
Yes, that has come against Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Texas (which mustered a total of 53 yards last Saturday), but the Gators will get their chance this week to put some weight behind their stunning numbers.
“It allows us to validate those numbers because as people say, we haven’t played anybody, but this Saturday will be the first real test,” junior cornerback Quincy Wilson said.
And depending on what the Gators get from Appleby and the offense, they may need to do just that.
Florida: The good news for Florida is that Appleby has plenty of experience, having started 11 games for Purdue while playing in 17 overall. The bad news is he has tallied as many interceptions as touchdowns for the Boilermakers — 19 of each. The graduate transfer fills in for Del Rio this week and beyond. Expectations should be modest, but Appleby is a bright guy, adds some playmaking ability with his legs and says he’s confident and comfortable in the offense. That will be determined Saturday. Behind him, the Gators have two true freshmen, and coach Jim McElwain did not reveal who the backup would be if needed.
Tennessee: Josh Dobbs is as experienced as any quarterback in the SEC, having started 25 career games. He’s also a known entity. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and quick, he is a threat with his legs (671 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns on the ground last season; 161 yards, 3 TDs already this fall), but he remains an inconsistent passer (162 passing yards per game, and 6 TDs, 3 INTs in 2016). Still, he is one of the main reasons so many were so high on the Vols in the preseason, and he’s certainly capable of taking over a game. The Gators know this well. Dobbs rushed for 136 yards on 18 carries last year in Florida’s come-from-behind 28-27 win (and had a 58-yard receiving touchdown for good measure).
Florida: In wins over Kentucky and North Texas the last two weeks, Florida is averaging 249.5 rushing yards per game. The Gators may not have a singular talent at this position as good as Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, but their four-headed committee of rushers has proven plenty effective. Sophomores Jordan Scarlett (33 carries for 175 yards and 2 TDs), Jordan Cronkrite (17-80-1), junior Mark Thompson (32-166-2) and true freshman Lamical Perine (29-161-1) will all get ample work Saturday.
Tennessee: Hurd will be leaned on heavily Saturday. Through three games, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior has rushed for 270 yards and 2 TDs. Last year he rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 TDs on 4.7 yards per carry, including 102 yards and 2 TDs against Florida on 28 attempts. Keeping he and Dobbs corralled is the Gators’ primary objective.
Florida: McElwain never officially declared whether star sophomore wideout Antonio Callaway (quad) would be active Saturday, but his status was trending in a positive direction. McElwain closed practice this week, thus reporters were not able to see how Callaway (13 catches for 201 yards and 2 TDs in two games) was moving around, but it would be a surprise if he doesn’t play. He’s complemented by junior Brandon Powell (14-136-2) and a bevy of other options. Meanwhile, junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby (9-112) has been emerging as a target in the passing game.
Tennessee: Junior Josh Malone is a big-play threat for the Vols, having turned 9 catches into 196 yards and 4 TDs. He had a 67-yard TD against Appalachian State, a 38-yard TD against Virginia Tech and two 20-yard scores last week against Ohio. No other Vols receiver has reached 100 yards receiving yet, and 6-foot-6 sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf has not been a factor in the passing game (5-47).
Florida: The Gators will be missing starting right guard Tyler Jordan for a second straight game because of an eye injury. Sophomore Fred Johnson graded out well in his place against North Texas while sliding over from right tackle, where it looks like true freshman Jawaan Taylor has solidified the starting job. Overall, the unit was not quite as impressive as it was the prior week against Kentucky, though, and the loss of Jordan could have a more pronounced impact against a tougher Tennessee team.
Tennessee: The Vols have shuffled their offensive line arrangement already this season. Redshirt-junior left tackle Brett Kendrick (6-foot-6, 318 pounds) started the first two games at right tackle before moving to the other side last week. Senior center Dylan Wiesman (6-4, 310) made just his third career start at the position last week after starting the first two games at right guard. Sophomore right guard Jack Jones (6-4, 307) made just his second career start overall last week. And junior right tackle Coleman Thomas (6-5, 301), a veteran of 21 career starts, moved over from center for that game against Ohio. The stalwart has been junior left guard Jashon Robertson (6-3, 305), who has 26 career starts. There’s a possibility that sophomore Chance Hall, who had a strong freshman season, could return to action at right tackle this week after being sidelined following knee surgery in August. That could shuffle everything once again. Overall, the group has given up 7 sacks already.
Florida: The Gators’ defensive line has mostly done the dirty work this season while setting up the team’s linebackers to make plays, but junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley broke out last week with a sack safety to set the tone against North Texas. Senior nose tackle Joey Ivie has graded out exceptionally well this season, and redshirt freshman defensive end Jabari Zuniga has shined while ranking second in the SEC with 4 sacks so far. Overall, Florida leads the country with 16 sacks through three games.
Tennessee: Junior defensive end Derek Barnett is one of the premier pass rushers in the SEC, boasting 20 sacks and 36 tackles for loss in 29 career games (26 starts) for Tennessee. On the other side, senior Corey Vereen led the Vols last year with 8 quarterback hurries and ranked third with 9.5 TFLs. And there’s more experience on the inside, as redshirt-junior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers is a returning starter while redshirt-senior tackle Danny O’Brien, who got banged up last Saturday but was able to return to the game, has 16 career starts. As a team, though, Tennessee has produced just 3 sacks through three games.
Florida: Redshirt-junior Alex Anzalone could be the X-factor this week. He has the vision, lateral agility and sharp reaction time to help keep Dobbs from creating too many big plays with his legs. Anzalone (14 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and senior Jarrad Davis (18 tackles, 2 sacks) have played a starring role in Florida’s exceptional start defensively.
Tennessee: Weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin injured his shoulder in the first half of Tennessee’s win over Ohio last week and did not return to the game. Reports out of Knoxville indicate he will play and likely start Saturday, though. The senior standout was on preseason watch lists for several prestigious awards and leads the Vols with 18 tackles along with 2 TFLs so far. Meanwhile, junior Colton Jumper took over for injured starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (ankle) last week and responded with a career-high 7 tackles and 1 TFL. Kirkland will miss a second straight game.
Florida: Tennessee is not known for its aerial attack, but star junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are hoping they get challenged Saturday. They might be the best pair of corners in the country. Meanwhile, redshirt-senior safety Marcus Maye (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception) has been as steady as anybody on the Gators’ defense, and junior safety Marcell Harris snagged his first career interception last week. It’s a strong unit.
Tennessee: The Vols got dealt a key injury setback last week vs. Ohio when star cornerback Cameron Sutton broke his ankle. Junior Justin Martin, who missed the game last week with an ankle injury, is projected to make his first career start while taking over at left corner, though promising freshman Baylen Buchanan also could be called upon. Junior Emmanuel Moseley is a returning starter at right corner and switched sides last week after Sutton went down, but he’s listed on the right side on the team’s depth chart this week. Sophomore free safety Micah Abernathy has been productive so far, racking up 8 tackles against Appalachian State, a program-record 3 fumble recoveries against Virginia Tech and 5 tackles last week, and junior strong safety Todd Kelly Jr. led the Vols with 3 interceptions last fall.
Florida: McElwain said on his radio show Thursday night that he’s not afraid to test rookie kicker Eddy Pineiro’s length on field goals. Given how tight the last two games between these teams have been, that could be a huge factor. Pineiro is 5-of-7 on field goals this season with a long of 54 yards. Redshirt-junior punter Johnny Townsend also remains an exceptional weapon for the Gators while averaging 50.3 yards per punt, but the return game has been underwhelming.
Tennessee: Junior kicker Aaron Medley made 21-of-31 field goals and all 55 PATs last season, finishing second in the SEC in scoring, and he barely missed a 55-yard try in the final seconds in that one-point loss to Florida a year ago. He’s 3-for-5 so far this year, missing both of his attempts from 40 yards or longer. Redshirt-junior punter Trevor Daniel is averaging 43.7 yards per attempt. Where the Vols stand out, though, is at kicker returner. Junior Evan Berry, the 2015 SEC special teams player of the year, led the NCAA last fall in averaging 38.3 yards per kickoff return. He’s only been given 2 attempts this year, averaging 30.0 yards.
Florida’s defense should be the best unit on the field between either team Saturday. Until it happens, it’s just hard to envision any opponent scoring many points off this group. That makes the Gators offense against the Vols defense the pivotal matchup in this one. Can Florida score enough points to win? Most likely. While the Gators haven’t played any tough opponents yet, Tennessee has looked lackluster in two of its three games, and, at some point, the psychological factor of the 11 straight losses to Florida has to creep into the players’ heads. Look for the Gators to lean on their ground game and defense and win a close, low-scoring affair.