Welcome to Upset Alert, a weekly column about a Saturday favorite liable to get knocked off by the underdog.
Last week’s pick, Missouri, came one fourth-down touchdown pass away from beating Georgia in a 28-27 home loss. Elsewhere, the ranked Texas A&M Aggies “upset” unranked Auburn, 29-16, in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Mississippi State beat the spread in a 23-20 loss to LSU.
We’re sticking to the SEC East this week. Here’s why Florida will travel to Neyland Stadium and notch its 12th consecutive win over Tennessee (6.5-point favorite) on Saturday:
Some consider this an overblown factor, but let’s not overthink things. In the words of Deion Sanders: “U look good u feel good, u feel good u play good, u play good they pay good.” In words that pass for a sentence beyond elementary school, the Gators know they’ve had the upper hand in this rivalry for a while now, and they’re playing with extreme confidence. Players have really started digging into Tennessee’s film this week, too. Based on some of the comments we heard yesterday — “Tennessee’s the duck and we’re the truck,” or Tennessee has been “slacking around most likely” — Florida is none too impressed with the tape. Mentally, you have to give the Gators an edge, even if they are going on the road.
2. Florida’s improved ground game
Obviously, Tennessee possesses a much, much better defensive front than anyone Florida has played so far. But that doesn’t take away from the progress we’ve seen from the Gators offensive line. In addition to allowing only one sack and eight tackles for loss, the Gators are averaging 4.97 yards per rush, which is almost a full 1.5 yards more than last year’s mark of 3.48, which was the worst in the SEC. The big tailback committee of Jordan Scarlett, Mark Thompson and Lamical Perine ensures that Florida always has fresh legs in its backfield. Even if Antonio Callaway doesn’t play and Austin Appleby isn’t exactly a gunslinger filling in for Luke Del Rio, Jim McElwain knows his offense doesn’t need to drop 40 points. Tennessee has excellent pass rushers, but it has also allowed 458 rushing yards in three games. Tennessee being without linebacker Darrin Kirkland and cornerback Cam Sutton will be a killer in this game, too. Yes, Florida is banged up, but its defense is intact.
1. Containing Dobbs
This is, without a doubt, the biggest factor in the 2016 edition of the rivalry. The Vols nearly won last year’s game despite Josh Dobbs only throwing for 83 yards (they also picked up 82 yards on a couple of trick plays). Dobbs ran 18 times for 136 yards, including a 62-yard scramble, and made a 58-yard touchdown catch. He was 66 percent of Tennessee’s total offense. The Florida defense returns this season much stingier up front. The unit has 23 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and holding opponents to 1.3 yards per carry in 2016. At linebacker, a now-healthy Alex Anzalone is a force. Jarrad Davis has developed into a star. They have the athleticism to match up with Dobbs on designed quarterback runs and scrambles. The defensive line in front of them, at times, will be able to victimize a Tennessee O-line that has struggled so far. Florida might not score many points, but it won’t need to, because Dobbs won’t have room to do much.
Prediction: Florida 23, Tennessee 17
The Gators roll up 150-plus yards on the ground, while Dobbs winds up getting knocked to the ground often. If things go right for Florida, Appleby might attempt all of 20 passes in this one.