KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The coaches will say it’s a matter of executing the game plan, and players have talked about focus, intensity and taking it one play at a time.
Coach-speak and cliches have dominated the days leading up to Tennessee’s rivalry game with Florida, the teams on a collision course for a 3:30 p.m. game on Saturday that could determine the SEC East Division representative in the league’s title game in December.
The No. 14-ranked Vols (3-0) are a touchdown favorite over the No. 19-ranked Gators (3-0), even with Florida having won the past 11 games in the series dating back to 2004.
Tennessee will be missing two key cogs on defense, All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton (ankle) and sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (ankle) both ruled out.
The Gators, meanwhile, are expected to be without sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio, who was injured in his third start with the team last Saturday.
Here’s a look at five key facets of the game for Tennessee:
Focus, execution, consistency
Yes, the dreaded cliches, but it’s hard to overlook the Vols’ fumbles (11 this season), penalties (69 yards per game, 95th in the nation), missed tackles and missed blocks.
Coach Butch Jones has said it’s a matter of one player here or there making a mistake and it’s “correctable.”
Obviously, there’s no time like the present for Tennessee to play what its head coach calls “winning football.”
Tennessee struggled out of the gate the first two games before opening last Saturday’s 28-19 win over Ohio with a touchdown drive.
The Vols will want another fast start to get the sellout crowd involved, and the team will need to continue to make big plays for the home field to be a factor.
Josh Dobbs’ playmaking
Florida’s No. 1-ranked defense is expected to continue to play man-to-man press coverage, crowding the line of scrimmage in an effort to eliminate the run and make Tennessee one-dimensional.
Dobbs led all rushers in last season’s 28-27 Gators win, carrying 18 times for 136 yards.
One of the downsides of man-to-man coverage is that pass defenders often have their back to the ball, meaning that if Dobbs gets loose off the scramble, the potential for a big run exists.
Defense — somebody’s band is going to play
Tennessee’s so-called “Orange Swarm” has not been as advertised through three games, breakdowns and missed fits leading to explosive runs by opponents.
The Vols rank No. 71 in the country in run defense, allowing 152.7 yards per game, and the team’s leading tackler (Jalen Reeves-Maybin) could be less than 100 percent after getting knocked out of last week’s game with a shoulder injury.
Coordinator Bob Shoop plays an aggressive, attacking style that often leads to big plays —for the offense or the defense.
Whether you’re talking about Tennessee throwing out of its own end zone late in the game, going conservative with the run game, or electing to kick the extra point or go for a 2-point conversion, there’s no such thing as a good offensive game plan when your team ends up on the losing end.
Jones has done well to rebuild the Vols the past three seasons, raising the wins total by two each of his three previous campaigns in Knoxville.
But close losses to Florida the past two years have led many to question Jones’ late-game management techniques.
Jones fiery sideline disposition can—rightly or wrongly — give off the vibe that he’s not in control.
That said, teams do have a tendency to mirror their head coach, so it will be interesting to see how the Vols respond to Jones on Saturday.