September 15, 2017
The Opening Kickoff: Gators vs. Tennessee
Florida hosts the Vols on Saturday in search of its first win and an early leg up in the SEC East race.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Over the past decade, as power shifted from the East Division to the West in the Southeastern Conference, the same storyline surfaces each season during Florida-Tennessee week.
Is the Gators-Vols annual matchup still a big-time rivalry?
Sure seems like it since there’s always ample chatter about the game on TV and social media, and sports writers punch out more words about the early-season clash the week prior than any one person can consume. Sounds like a big-time rivalry to me, boosted this season in some ways by what happened last year in Knoxville.
The No. 24-ranked Gators (0-1) host the No. 23 Vols (2-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on CBS. Tennessee snapped its 11-game losing streak against the Gators with a 38-28 comeback victory a year ago at Neyland Stadium.
The Gators blew to a 21-0 lead as more than 100,000 Vols fans sat quietly. That changed as Tennessee reeled off 38 consecutive points and moved into the driver’s seat in the East. The loss still stings for the Gators, who overcame the deflating defeat to win the division for the second consecutive year.
“Just go out there and if we gonna throw bombs, throw bombs. If we gonna to blitz, continue to blitz,” sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. said this week. “Just do what we gotta do. Do what we did in the first half in the second half. Keep applying constant pressure, and we’ll win the game. That’s all it is.”
This is a Florida team in need of a dose of momentum. The Gators lost their season opener for the first time since 1989 two weeks ago and then had their home opener against Northern Colorado cancelled. They don’t want to start a season 0-2 for the first time since 1971.
They are ready to play and show fans that the 33-17 loss to Michigan in Texas was nothing more than a bad day at the office.
“I know how much it means for our guys to play in the Swamp, but more than that, how much it means for the people who are in the Swamp, in that environment to root on the Gators,” UF head coach Jim McElwain said. “I want our guys to understand that it’s so much more than just them. It’s an opportunity [and] it’s awful special coming off of what just occurred.”
Rivalry games are like that.
Here is a closer look at the Florida-Tennessee matchup in the latest edition of The Opening Kickoff:
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 15, 2017
THREE QUESTIONS WITH … GATORS DB CHAUNCEY GARDNER JR.
Q: How did you heal so quickly after leaving the field on crutches in the Michigan game?
A: I know my teammates put in a lot of work. So I know me sitting out is going to hurt them and it’s going to hurt me. I don’t like missing anything. They don’t like missing anything. So I told myself, ‘I’m going to get in after the game from rehab treatment from 7 in the morning to whenever practice was over, I’m going to be in there and get my leg right.’ That’s what I did, so I’m back. Time to go ball.
Q: How difficult was it to return focus to football in wake of Hurricane Irma?
A: It wasn’t hard. It’s family first, so when you know everything is OK, after I make sure my brothers and my family straight and other families straight, we play football.
Q: What did you think of someone putting a Tennessee flag on the Spurrier statue?
A: I just saw the picture. I don’t know about other guys, but to me it’s a sign of disrespect. Even though a fan did it, that’s something you don’t do regardless of the rivalry. It’s our property. You don’t vandalize what we earned and what we did.
Hurricane Irma disrupted the lives of Floridians all across the state, forcing the cancellation of Florida’s home opener against Northern Colorado. The Gainesville area suffered relatively minor damage compared to other parts of the state, so the Florida-Tennessee rivalry game is on and can perhaps serve as a brief respite for fans during what has been a stressful week for many.
The Gators-Vols matchup is a traditional early-season barometer in the SEC East race and this year is no different as the defending East champion Gators seek to avenge a 38-28 loss at Tennessee a year ago, snapping their 11-game win streak in the rivalry. Despite losing in Knoxville a year ago, Florida rebounded to win its second consecutive division crown while the Vols struggled down the stretch.
Both teams enter ranked in the polls and with high expectations from their fan bases. Nothing new there. A popular narrative around this game is that whichever team loses, fans of that school will be ready to jump off the ledge. Nothing new there, either. Still, for a pair of programs trying to climb back to join the nation’s elite, there’s no doubt each head coach could use a win to avoid the negativism that awaits the loser.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tennessee sophomore receiver Marquez Callaway had a breakout game in the season opener against Georgia Tech with four catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 199-pound Callaway added a 37-yard touchdown reception in Tennessee’s win over Indiana State. Expect Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady to look Callaway’s way often Saturday against UF’s young secondary.
27 – Consecutive home openers the Gators have won
5,110 – Days since Tennessee last won a game at the Swamp, on Sept. 20, 2003
362 – Consecutive games in which the Gators have scored, which ranks second on the all-time list behind Michigan’s 365-game streak, which ended in 2004
THE QUOTE FILE
“The last time going in there, we fully believed we’d win the football game, and we did not finish, unfortunately.” – Vols coach Butch Jones on 28-27 loss in 2015 at Florida
OUT: WR James Robinson (heart problem); PROBABLE: TE Kemore Gamble (foot), TE DeAndre Goolsby (undisclosed); QUESTIONABLE: LB Kylan Johnson (hamstring); SUSPENDED: RB Jordan Scarlett, WR Rick Wells, WR Antonio Callaway, LB Ventrell Miller, OL Kadeem Telfort, DL Jordan Smith, DL Keivonnis Davis, LB James Houston IV, DT Richerd Desir-Jones; OUT FOR SEASON: LB Nick Smith (knee), DB Marcell Harris (Achilles tendon).
CHARTING THE GATORS
Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks is set to make his first career home start Saturday vs. Tennessee. A look at recent UF quarterbacks in their first career start at the Swamp:
|Austin Appleby||2016||17 of 21, 201 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT in 20-7 W over South Carolina|
|Luke Del Rio||2016||29 of 44, 256 yards, 2 TD in 24-7 W over UMass|
|Will Grier||2015||10 of 17, 151 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT in 31-24 W over East Carolina|
|Treon Harris||2014||5 of 11, 60 yards, 1 TD in 23-20 L (OT) to South Carolina|
|Skyler Mornhinweg||2013||14 of 25, 122 yards, 2 TD in 26-20 L to Georgia Southern|
|Tyler Murphy||2013||16 of 22, 240 yards, 3 TD in 30-10 W over Arkansas|
|Jeff Driskel*||2012||10 of 16, 114 yards, 1 TD in 27-14 W over Bowling Green|
|Jacoby Brissett||2012||14 of 22, 154 yards in 23-0 W over Jacksonville State|
|John Brantley||2010||17 of 25, 113 yards, 2 TD in 34-12 W over Miami (Ohio)|
|Tim Tebow||2007||13 of 17, 300 yards, 3 TD in 49-3 W over Western Kentucky|
|Chris Leak||2003||14 of 27, 234 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT in 20-17 L to Ole Miss|
Note: *Driskel started at receiver, took over at quarterback on next play
10 QUICK HITTERS
The Gators are 20-7 against Tennessee since they started playing annually in 1990, including 11-2 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
In the something’s-gotta-give category, Florida’s goal-to-go touchdown efficiency last season was 55 percent, which ranked next to last among FBS schools. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s goal-to-go defensive touchdown efficiency was 91.7 percent, which ranked fourth worse in FBS.
Due to last week’s cancellation against Northern Colorado, this marks the first time the Gators have faced an SEC team in their home opener since defeating Kentucky in 1992.
Tennessee is seeking to start the season 3-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2003-04.
Vols junior running back John Kelly rushed for four touchdowns in the season-opening win over Georgia Tech, the first Tennessee player to do that since 1994.
Tennessee freshman running back Ty Chandler filled in for injured kick returner Evan Berry against Indiana State and returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown. Berry remains questionable for Saturday.
THE OTHER SIDE
The Florida-Tennessee rivalry is intense once the players step onto the field. Off the field, the Gators and Vols are teaming together on Saturday to provide game-day security in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which stretched police departments across the state thin.
Twenty-four officers from the University of Tennessee Police Department will travel to assist local officers in keeping the Swamp safe and secure.
“When we saw what happened in Florida last week, obviously I was concerned about our colleagues there,” said Troy Lane, associate vice chancellor for public safety and chief of UT Police. “I reached out to the University of Florida and offered any assistance. As you can imagine, they were excited to hear from us.”
WHAT THEY’RE WRITING
This is the part of the show where I strongly suggest whether I think the Gators are probably going to win or lose. I’ve never taken picks columns that seriously since no one really knows what is going to happen and I’m not a gambler in search of a tip. I strongly suggested Florida would beat Michigan. I was strongly wrong. I have no clue who is going to win this game. I have no clue whom to suggest as the winner of this game. I leaned toward the Gators against Michigan and I am tempted to lean toward the Vols on Saturday. Maybe the Gators can print this out and tape in the locker room for extra motivation. “Look at this crap, even this guy thinks Tennessee might win in our house. What a clown!” Truth is, I expect home-field advantage to play a factor in Florida’s favor. The Gators are certainly due for a break.