For the Florida Gators, it’s been a trying two weeks: a raft of suspensions stemming from a reported debit card scam; the continuation of a quarterback controversy that’s seemed to linger since Tim Tebow left; a dispiriting performance in the opener; and the first home game canceled by a massive hurricane barreling through the Sunshine State.
That last issue certainly puts everything else in perspective, particularly given that many in Gainesville and its environs are still cleaning up the muck left behind by Hurricane Irma’s wind and water. It was only Tuesday when the SEC determined that yes, Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. Eastern showdown between No. 24 Florida and No. 23 Tennessee will be played as scheduled, probably helped by the fact that nearly 90 percent of households in the area have already had electricity restored.
The hurricane cleanup — which is abjectly miserable, as anyone who’s ever had to endure it knows — remains foremost in all minds. The folks there still need help. But how does something like this impact a football team that has plenty of other issues on its plate already? Does it serve as an emotional rallying point, and a springboard for improved play? Or have the trials of the past week, and the images of widespread hardship inflicted upon Florida, divided the attention of a squad comprised mostly of players from within the state?
Until kickoff, there’s no way to know for sure. But we know one thing: Tennessee is coming in confident, the yoke of that 11-game losing streak to the Gators shed last season, and with a young starting quarterback who’s built some momentum. For all the talk of Vols coach Butch Jones and the hot seat, all the pressure here is on the home sideline, and the stage is set for 4½-point underdog Tennessee to claim its first victory in the Swamp since 2003.
1. The Vols have a more reliable starting quarterback
Gators coach Jim McElwain confirmed Wednesday that Feleipe Franks will start against the Vols, and he’ll certainly need a better performance out of the redshirt freshman than the 5-for-9, 75-yard effort in the opener against Michigan, which led the Gators to turn to Malik Zaire in the second half. Meanwhile, first-time Vols starter Quinten Dormady shook off a rough first half against Georgia Tech and through two games has completed 60 percent of his attempts with 4 touchdowns to 1 interception. No, he’s not Peyton Manning or Josh Dobbs. But against an offensively challenged opponent, he may not have to be.
2. Florida is still dealing with suspensions
As of Wednesday, running back Jordan Scarlett and wide receiver Antonio Callaway were not on the Gators two-deep for the Tennessee game, and McElwain gave no update on those two or the seven other players who had been suspended for the Michigan game for their part in a reported debit card scam. Clearly this is an ongoing issue, and the players have not been part of football-related activities since the suspensions were issued. This not only serves as a massive and embarrassing distraction, but also further hamstrings an offense that needs all the help it can get.
3. The streak no longer hangs over the Vols’ heads
Let’s face it: When it came to the Tennessee-Florida game, the streak was as damaging to the Volunteers’ psyche as anything else. Tennessee finally ended it last season, winning 38-28 in Knoxville for its first victory in the series since 2004, and the sigh of relief was evident from Mountain City to Memphis. That streak gave the Gators a mental advantage from the moment they set foot in the stadium, with everyone wondering: How will the Vols blow it this time? No more.
4. Tennessee has enough on offense to eke out a win
The key matchup may be Dormady needing to make good decisions against a Florida secondary with some elite playmakers who turned in a pair of pick-sixes against Michigan. But the junior quarterback should have some help in the form of a veteran offensive line that’s helped running back John Kelly average 5.6 yards per rush. Neither offense is explosive, but Tennessee’s has fewer question marks, and just enough to eke out a victory in the Swamp.
Prediction: Tennessee 20, Florida 17
This one should be the kind of grinder where every possession is crucial. For Tennessee, though, there is no pressure — the Vols are a road underdog, all the distractions are on the Florida side, and the Gainesville newspaper has called it a must-win for the Gators. Above and beyond that is the hurricane, which McElwain said impacted the families of 60 of his players. That’s real-life stuff, right there. And when it comes to giving to relief efforts, everyone from the Swamp to Rocky Top should be on the same side.