Both of these two teams have been a bit of a surprise early in the season. Yes, they haven't played SEC competition yet but they have looked really good in dispatching who they had in front of them. Florida has started off beating FAU and UAB by a combined score of 80-3. Through two games the Florida defense has only given up 174.5 yards per game and is #1 in the Nation in 3rd down conversions (holding teams to just a 13.4% conversion rate). Tennessee on the other hand has given up a total of 39 points (16 to Montana and 23 to Cincinnati) but has scored 87 points behind the trio of Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. This "Third Saturday in September" rivalry has been dominated by Florida recently. For a brief history of this rivalry check out SEC rivals for their write up. Florida has won the last six meetings and has won 19 of the last 25 meetings. Is this the year Tennessee gets over the hump or does Florida continue to dominate this rivalry?
John Brantley was nothing short of awful last year in Urban Meyer's last year at Florida. He had more INTs (10) than TDs (9) and finished with just 158 yards passing per game. This year he's got Charlie Weis as his new OC and he is running an offense that suits him more. In his opening two games (against weak competition) he has improved his completion percentage by 7% but still has more INTs (2) than TDs (1). The jury is still out on John Brantley.
Tyler Bray has also yet to see an SEC caliber defense but so far he has lit it up against lesser competition. So far this year he is 51 of 65 for 698 yards and has 7 TD versus 0 INT. In his young career Bray has still yet to put together a good game against an above average team. Is this finally his time?
If the question is which team has the best RB suited to play RB at the next level then it's Tennessee's Tauren Poole. But production tells a different story. Florida is currently second in the SEC in rushing and has ran the ball the third most times in the conference and is doing so at a 5.65 yards per carry average. Florida has ran for almost twice as many yards as Tennessee has so far this season. Chris Rainey is averaging 99 yards per game and 7.33 ypc so far (yes we know it was against FAU and UAB) and Jeff Demps so far is averaging 8.21 ypc. It's not a traditional rushing attack but it's been effective and I think it will be effective against Tennessee as well. Florida simply has more weapons at RB than does Tennessee. They might not be traditional RBs but I sure wouldn't want to game-plan against them.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Outside of Chris Rainey, Florida's leading WRs have 5 catches so far this season and none of them have a TD. Coming into the season the WR spot at Florida was a big question mark and I think it still is. On the other side of the field, Tennessee has two sophomores who are just bursting with talent in Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. Hunter has 16 receptions and 2 TDs and Da'Rick has 15 receptions and 3 TDs so far this year. I'm very interested to see how these two young receivers do with the step up in opposition but it's clear that they have the advantage here.
Florida is yet to allow a sack so far this season. They are one of only five teams that have not allowed a sack (and have played at least two games). That being said, this list isn't all that impressive (UCLA, UNC, Ohio State and Middle Tennessee are the other four). Both of these lines are pretty young and don't confuse me with someone who knows a lot about OLs but I'm rolling with Florida on this one.
Tennessee has Malik Jackson and he's a heck of a player but Florida has a lot of talent up and down their DL. Derek Dooley called Florida "probably the most talented defensive line in the country." Florida's DL has manhandled lesser opponents so far this year and while I think Tennessee will provide a much stiffer competition I think Florida has a clear advantage in their DL vs Tennessee's OL. Florida also gets Sharrif Floyd back for his game.
Seniors Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen lead the Vols defense with 10 and 9 tackles respectively. I think this is another position where Florida just has more talent and youth than the Vols do. The Gators come at you with Jonathan Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Ronald Powell. Powell will be a key in this game as he's still learning the "buck" position where he is a hybrid LB/DE who has the ability to freelance more. Muschamp is looking for him to affect the game more. Keep an eye on him on Saturday (for better or worse).
Both of these teams took a huge hit this off-season when Florida lost Janoris Jenkins and Tennessee lost Janzen Jackson. Both guys were arguably the best players on each teams defense. Safety Matt Elam has gotten off to a quick start as he leads the Gators with 11 tackles. Tennessee has some talent in the backfield with Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague but both teams are really unproven in these areas. A key match-up in this game will be Tyler Bray and his receivers against the Florida DBs.
Tennessee has Da'Rick Rogers returning kick-offs for them, Florida rolls with Andre Debose and Jeff Demps. Debose averaged 27 yds per return last year and had two TDs on KO returns. Demps averaged 32 yards per KO return last year. At kicker, Florida returns Caleb Sturgis and he's off to a 5 for 5 start so far this year including 1 of 1 over 50 yards (he was 22 of 30 in 2009). Tennessee rolls with sophomore Michael Palardy at kicker. He was 5 of 7 last year and is 1 of 2 this year with his long being 37 (he's 0 for 1 from 40-49 yards). Neither team looks like they are particularly talented at punter.
Both Head Coaches have been plucked off the Nick Saban coaching tree and both have some good assistants (Charlie Weis for Florida comes to mind and so does former Boise State DC Justin Wilcox for Tennessee). For me the jury is still out on Derek Dooley and this is only Will Muschamp's third game as a Head Coach so I'm going stalemate in the coaching duel. That brings us to the "intangibles" and to me the biggest one is where this game is being played. This one's being played in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida and I think that's a huge advantage for Florida. 2003 was the last time Tennessee won in Gainesville and they are just 2-10 in their last 12 in Gainesville. Tyler Bray has had a great two game stretch so far this year and was solid down the stretch last year against weaker competition. But let's remember, his only SEC road win so far in his career is against Vanderbilt. This is a huge game for him and I'm sure there will be more than a few butterflies in his stomach for this one.
Out of nine different areas of this game I've given Florida the advantage in six of those and only two for Tennessee (with one being a toss-up). Florida just has more talent than Tennessee does right now and you can thank Lane Kiffin for that. Now does talent always win out? No it doesn't. Tennessee's best chance here is to make this a track meet with Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da'Rogers but that's asking an awful lot of this trio of young sophomores. And do you really want to get into a track meet with Jeff Demps? Florida should win this game as long as they don't make John Brantley win it. Florida takes this one by riding Demps and Rainey and containing the Tennessee passing attack just enough.
PREDICTION: Florida 27 Tennessee 21