Last year, Tennessee took down Florida to snap a five-game losing streak in the series. Now the No. 11 Volunteers will be out to end two decades of misery at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday as they look for consecutive triumphs over their SEC East rival. The Vols last beat the Gators on the road in 2003, and UF will be eager to extend its home winning streak going in the series and secure what would be a signature victory early in coach Billy Napier’s second season.
Florida got back on track in Week 2 with a 49-7 win over FCS foe McNeese State, but the memory of a 24-11 season-opening loss at Utah is still fresh as the Gators try and establish their identity following a 5-7 debut campaign for Napier. Beating a division rival like Tennessee, which is coming off its first 11-win season since 2001, would change the narrative surrounding the Gators as conference play begins.
The Volunteers began the season with an easy 49-13 win over Virginia, but they followed up with an ugly 30-13 victory over Austin Peay that raised red flags over whether the program is regressing amid the loss of star quarterback Hendon Hooker. Veteran signal-caller Joe Milton has taken over the position within third-year coach Josh Heupel’s high-flying offense but has yet to demonstrate the passing touch that made Hooker a star for the Volunteers.
Florida vs. Tennessee: Need to know
Offensive questions: Milton is just 2 of 11 this season on passes that have traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to TruMedia. Of his 42 completions, 28 have come at or behind the line of scrimmage. If the Vols are going to hit their stride offensively, they must make opponents respect their downfield passing game. Florida also has quarterback questions of its own as Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz enters his third start with the program following four seasons with the Badgers. He’s been more successful than Milton throwing downfield, completing 7 of 12 throws more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage through two games. But, in the loss to Utah, Florida struggled to run the football, and Mertz isn’t a world-beating playmaker who can single-handedly lead the Gators to victories over quality SEC foes.
Centers could play: Both teams navigated their first two games without their starting centers, who have been out due to injury. Both could be back this week, though, as Florida’s Kingsley Eguakun and Tennessee’s Cooper Mays were both expected to practice this week. Neither coach has revealed whether their center will play, but the presence of either on the field would constitute a significant boost. Eguakun, in his fifth year with the program, started 26 games at center over the past two seasons for the Gators. Mays has logged 21 starts at center for the Vols for the past two years and earned a spot on the 2023 preseason All-SEC third team.
Players-only meeting: Typically, when word leaks out from any team about a players-only meeting, it’s a sign that things aren’t going well. Tennessee had such a meeting after its underwhelming performance against Austin Peay. Senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas said the Vols hold players-only meetings “whenever we feel like that it’s something coming up or you might see guys just kind of falling off or lacking a little bit.” There must have been plenty to discuss considering the Vols led Austin Peay just 13-6 at halftime last week before using a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to finally gain separation on their in-state FCS opponent. Austin Peay edged the Vols 19-17 in first downs during the matchup, while Tennessee committed 10 penalties in the game.
How to watch Tennessee vs. Florida live
Date: Saturday, Sept. 16 | Time: 7 p.m. ET
Location: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — Gainesville, Florida
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fubo (Try for free)
Florida vs. Tennessee prediction, picks
Odds via SportsLine consensus
These teams combined for 71 points last season as the Volunteers squeaked out a 38-33 victory in a game that featured nearly 1,200 yards of offense. But both teams have downgraded at quarterback since then and have questions to answer offensively. Tennessee’s critical downfield passing game is a work in progress, and Florida must prove that it can run the football better than it did during a Week 1 loss at Utah. With neither unit close to peak offensive capacity, the punters should stay busier this year. Pick: Under 59
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