No. 6 Florida can clinch the SEC East this Saturday and move one step closer to earning the program’s first bid in the College Football Playoff. All that stands in the way is a Tennessee team that has lost five consecutive games by double-digits and that the Gators (7-1) have beaten 14 out of the last 15 years.
Still, the Volunteers (2-5) have some talented players on both sides of the ball that are capable of ruining the Gators’ coronation.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness, and three players to watch for from the Volunteers.
Three Positions of Strength
Henry To’o To’o is one of the best linebackers in the SEC, as he was named Preseason Second Team All-SEC. He leads the Volunteers with 45 tackles and has also chipped in a sack and a pick-six. He’s far from the only impactful linebacker, however. Deandre Johnson is tied for sixth in the league with 4.5 sacks and has also forced two fumbles. The unit has a good mixture of size, athleticism, and experience. They’ve helped the Volunteers rank sixth in the conference in sacks per game and fifth in tackles-for-loss.
Pretty much everything Tennessee does on offense goes through the running backs. Eric Gray is a physical, between-the-tackles runner. He’s fifth in the league in rushing with 651 yards on his 132 carries and has scored four touchdowns. Ty Chandler is a more electric runner, and he’s rushed for 315 yards and two scores on 72 carries. The two have combined for 34 catches for 280 yards and a touchdown. The Volunteers need Gray and Chandler to both have career games to have a chance to win this game.
Though Tennessee is next to last in the league in passing offense, it’s not because of the wide receivers. Josh Palmer is a physical target who’s averaging 15 yards per reception. Jalin Hyatt was one of the fastest players in his recruiting class and is averaging 17.8 yards per catch this season. Velus Jones Jr. has been regarded as one of the nation’s best kickoff returners dating back to his time at USC. They have plenty of size and speed at receiver. If only they had someone to throw them the ball.
Three Positions of Weakness
The Volunteers start three seniors upfront, but they have produced very little. End Matthew Butler has made one sack and knocked down a pass. Tackles Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon have combined for 23 tackles with no sacks and half a tackle-for-loss. The backups have combined for just two sacks. The Volunteers are ninth in the league in rushing defense at 161.1 yards per game, which is a reflection of the way this group is playing. Florida’s offensive line should get back on track this week.
This might be one of the most disappointing units in the entire conference. Despite starting four former five-star recruits, they’re giving up 2.4 sacks per game, which is tied for the third-most in the conference. They’re also only a middle-of-the-pack rushing offense despite having a pair of talented runners. They’re just ninth in the league with 3.9 yards per carry. This unit was supposed to be the reason Tennessee turned things around and contended for the SEC East title this season. Instead, they’re one of the biggest reasons why they’ll likely finish with a losing record.
Tennessee has thrown six touchdown passes the entire season. UF’s Kyle Trask has thrown six touchdowns in a game twice this season. This position is a nightmare that only gets worse every week for them. Jarrett Guarantano is the bane of Volunteers fans’ existence. He’s completed just 62 percent of his passes for 1,112 yards with all six touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s also added four rushing scores. He’s been benched in favor of top-100 freshman Harrison Bailey three times this season. Bailey has thrown for 175 yards and two interceptions. Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Monday that one of their quarterbacks has missed practice due to COVID-19 contact tracing procedures. He didn’t state who the quarterback was or comment on whether he’d be able to play Saturday, leaving some to speculate that it is Guarantano. If that is the case, Florida will get to face a true freshman making his first start.
Three Players to Watch
Quarterback Harrison Bailey
Depending on who the player is that’s been affected by contact tracing, Bailey could be the starting quarterback on Saturday. Even if he’s not, he will play in this game in some capacity, according to head coach Jeremy Pruitt. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he has a big arm and solid mechanics in the pocket. He’s not a dual-threat quarterback by any means, though he has added 22 yards on five carries this season. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham receives a ton of criticism, some of it justified, but one thing you can’t deny is the fact that he terrorizes freshman quarterbacks with his array of blitzes.
Running Back Eric Gray
For the Volunteers to win this game, Gray’s probably going to have to gain around 200 yards between rushing and receiving. He’s certainly capable of doing that. He rushed for 173 yards and gained 49 receiving yards in their last game against Auburn. He put up a combined 150 yards two weeks prior to that against Arkansas. He also eclipsed 100 rushing yards against Missouri and Kentucky. Tennessee will likely employ the same strategy Kentucky did and try to keep the ball away from Trask and wear down UF’s defense. Gray is a key component to that.
Defensive Back Theo Jackson
As their starting nickelback, he’ll likely draw the Kyle Pitts assignment most frequently. He’s made one of the Volunteers’ three interceptions this season. For his safety, let’s just hope he doesn’t say something dumb about how Pitts hasn’t played against anybody of his caliber. That didn’t work out so well for Kentucky’s J.J. Weaver.