Two words: F— DEM.
You don’t need a Show Me My University Opponent on Florida. You know everything there is to know, so here’s what I wrote last year:
If you’re reading this, you hate them. It’s simple. The University of Florida, responsible for giving the world Aaron Hernandez, Marco Rubio, Cris Collinsworth, Dan Bilzerian, Teez Tabor, Chandler Parsons, Joe Scarborough, Bill Whittle, Will Hill, Chris Rainey, Janoris Jenkins, Reche Caldwell, a freaking Steinbrenner, and thousands upon thousands of well-to-do gentlemen who happen to be very bad at life. Smart people go there, and a whole lot of dumb people do, too.
This school is responsible for numerous terrible memories for anyone reading this post. It’s not just because they birthed these people (and Tim Tebow, who is fine) onto the world. Faxgate. 31-0 in 1994. 62-37. The almost comebacks. The touchdown that absolutely, positively was not a touchdown. ELEVEN IN A ROOOOOOWWWW. And millions of other stupid tiny paper cuts that make this rivalry the clear #1 rivalry for fans under about 35 years old.
. . . Few things are as appetizing and satisfying as watching the Florida Gators get completely and utterly smoked in a football game.
OH BABY. Roll up those Kentucky highlights!
Beautiful. Every now and then, I like to convince myself that having the Gators come to town undefeated makes the game even better, but it really doesn’t. Having them come to town getting that tail whipped by KENTUCKY is 5,000 times better. I don’t care if it ruined the rivalry; I would LOVE for this stupid university to come to town 0-2 or 0-3 every single year. (Screw) dem.
Thankfully, for brevity’s sake, Florida’s 2018 season through three games is pretty easy to sum up: no hurricanes, one really bad loss to a team they hadn’t lost to in 32 years (!), and two taking-care-of-business games against a pair of CSUs. You can essentially equate Florida’s win over Charleston Southern with Tennessee’s over ETSU: both had pretty similar final scores (53-6 to 59-3), similar adjusted scoring margins (+54.9 to +57.6), and both represented a return to normalcy of sorts.
Considering Tennessee struggled with very poor teams as recently as a year ago, it was good for them to come out (after a mediocre start) and blow the doors off an overmatched team. Likewise, for Florida, it was barely three years ago that a pre-Kiffin Florida Atlantic took them to overtime (WITH A QUARTERBACK NUMBERED 32) and probably should’ve won. Nothing’s wrong with beating the pants off of bad teams, and it’s an important requisite to simply beating good ones.
Now, of course, both failed miserably in their only serious tests against Power Five competition. Tennessee, of course, got obliterated by the Will Grier Heisman train; Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time since Reagan was President. The difference in the two only really lies in the final margin, and it probably should’ve been even worse for Florida. The expected final score of the Kentucky game based on the boxscore stats was Kentucky +20.9 (or, alternately, about Kentucky 37-16). Kentucky fumbled the ball away at the Florida 33, got picked at the Florida 22, and missed a devastatingly easy interception of Franks that would’ve given them the ball inside the Florida 40 with eight minutes to play. On average, Florida started with the ball at their 19 and had to start drives three times inside of their own 10. Tennessee still hasn’t started a drive inside of their own 10 in 2018.
As for each team’s latest game, Tennessee shrugged their way to a 24-0 win that actually looked pretty good from a boxscore perspective: the adjusted scoring margin was Vols +51, they forced 12 punts on 13 drives (the 13th was an abbreviated end of half drive), and just one drive that started in UTEP territory ended on the Vols’ half of the field. And while Tennessee couldn’t manage more than 24 points against a defense UNLV dropped 52 on, that isn’t to say it was a terrible offensive day: of Tennessee’s 13 drives, ten ended in UTEP territory, with six breaching the UTEP red zone. About twice a year, there’s a game where a team tops 500 yards and 7 yards per play but puts up 25 or less; Tennessee happens to be this year’s second.
Florida, however, comes in feeling a little different: they beat Colorado State 48-10, which looks pretty bad at first. However: Florida only outgained Colorado State 341-310 (Florida ran 38 less plays), Feleipe Franks started 0 of 6, and their final score was greatly enhanced by a pair of special teams touchdowns. Also, the Rams ended seven drives inside the Florida 35 and somehow managed to come away with 10 points. It was still a blowout, of course, but they’ve got worries, too.
Yes, Tennessee’s offensive line is openly bad. Yes, we still don’t really know where Tennessee’s pass rush will be generated. Yes, Drew Richmond is still on the team. (Richmond alone was worth -3 points in Saturday’s game because of his penalties; UT officially credits him with three, though I remembered four.) And yes, Dan Mullen probably has slightly more proven talent on his roster than Tennessee’s. But I don’t get why people are afraid that Florida’s going to come in here and blow Tennessee out. If they were the #25 team in the nation, as voters thought, shouldn’t they have blown out Kentucky?
Franks = MVP (minimum viable product)
They tried! Lord knows they tried. But they can’t shake Feleipe Franks out of the starting role. Franks, who had a PFF grade of about 51 last year (Not Good), is back again as Florida’s starting quarterback. From my limited reading of my favorite Florida fans (shoutout to the immortal @GatorCritic and the actually smart @Year2), most of the fans not participating in blind faith are gritting their teeth and accepting Franks as starter for now. Franks has a giant arm, is pretty inaccurate, doesn’t always seem to be aware of what to do, and is being forced to run more than he probably wants. Hmmm…never heard that one before!
Anyway, the stats. Through three games, Franks is 41 of 77 (53.3%) for 570 yards (7.4 YPA), 9 touchdowns, and two interceptions. Pretty much anyone takes that TD/INT ratio for a supposedly questionable quarterback, right? As usual, it’s more complicated than that. Of Franks’ nine touchdown passes, five came against Charleston Southern. The Charleston Southern performance was pretty easily his best in a college uniform to date: 16 of 24 (66.7%) for 219 yards, 5 TDs, and 34 yards on the ground. His only touchdown pass of the day of more than six yards was a bubble screen that went for 34 yards. Against the two FBS teams he’s played: 25 of 53 (47.2%), 351 yards (6.6 YPA), 4 TDs, 2 INTs.
Now, let me share one caveat about this completion percentage: seven of his 28 incompletions the last two weeks have been drops (plus one against Charleston Southern). That’s an astounding 13% drop rate over two games from his receivers, a problem Florida didn’t really have in 2017. Like, this:
Should’ve been a completion for at least eight yards. (Jordan Scarlett, is the ball supposed to be gently placed in your hands for you to catch it?) But, then again, Franks is just freaking bombing these things in there with little to no touch:
2008 Jonathan Crompton would’ve been proud of the touch displayed here. That thing is a Randy Johnson HEATER.
A lot of Florida Twitter people note that Franks isn’t given more than two reads, because they’re afraid of what will happen if they turn him loose. (This has, more or less, been Tennessee’s logic with quarterbacks for ten years now, including Guarantano.) Considering the panic he displays on some of these throws, I believe it. This two-read play could’ve been a touchdown:
And, just like last year, Franks throws an alarming amount of interceptable passes. I would estimate that this pass gets caught by an average defensive back 70-75% of the time:
I hate to be mean, but the biggest reason why Feleipe Franks’ completion percentage is so low is Feleipe Franks. A properly thrown ball here is potentially a touchdown; instead, it’s an easy pick because it’s three yards underthrown:
Lastly, this was a two-point conversion, but this is what @GatorCritic (truly the bizarro-world Sabanocchio, minus recruit tweets) means when he says he’d set Franks’ NCAA awareness as low as possible:
This was the end of the line for me with Feleipe Franks. He rolls right and STARES DIRECTLY AT A WIDE OPEN MALIK DAVIS. But decides to wheel around and make things complicated.
And for the millionth- and final- time: nothing against him personally. But he simply is not a good QB pic.twitter.com/2NYZCfwTOR
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) September 10, 2018
Lastly, I went back and watched every Franks in 2018 so far. (Don’t try this at home.) Here’s your ultra-fancy chart, made in Powerpoint:
(For some reason, I’m missing a completion, but the two missing incompletions were throwaways.) The path to a win here for Tennessee is pretty simple: force Franks to his left and cover the middle of the field, especially shallow crossing routes. Franks’ favorite route in the playbook, by far, is any X-cross or slant route that’s under ten yards. Six of his nine touchdown passes have come via these routes, and of those ten incompletions, four were drops. Franks’ adjusted completion rate on passes of under 10 yards, as such, is 32 of 41 (78%). That’s pretty good. Here’s what isn’t good: anything else.
Franks’ lone 20+ yard touchdown of the year was his most recent pass, a wide open 38-yarder to Van Jefferson, who had no trouble catching this one:
I would safely put this as one of the, oh, four best throws from Franks in 2018. It’s not perfect – another yard forward and you wouldn’t have to worry about the DB catching up – but it’s a good throw and a good read. The problem: that was his first completion on an attempt to the right side of the field of more than ten yards since the Charleston Southern game (had missed on six straight passes prior). On any attempt of 10 yards or more, Franks is 12 of 34 on the season (35.3%). For context, Tennessee’s 2017 quarterbacks went 22 of 71 (31%) through the first eight games last season.
It’s weird, but this is the rare game where you kind of hope Tennessee has to defend deep passes. Franks isn’t accurate enough to make them a consistent threat, and the 20+ yard attempts are just about at the exact median of SEC quarterbacks over the full 2017 season (17.3% to 17.1%). Couple that with 2017’s stats for Franks – just a 19.4% completion rate on 36 attempts of 20+ yards or more and a 32.3% completion rate on all 10+ yard throws – and it’s hard to say that he’s a serious threat.
Oh, and I forgot: Franks runs a lot now. They’re mostly designed runs, but he’s more open to scrambling, too. Dan Mullen’s offense is heavily read option-based and very physical, and as such, Franks is now being forced to take a lot of hits. Franks leads the team in carries – 20 to Jordan Scarlett’s 19 – and is gaining about 5.5 yards per attempt on said runs. Tennessee’s defensive ends and linebackers must be very smart in this game in watching the read closely; against Kentucky, Franks ran the ball nine times, two more than any one running back.
RBBC, yet again
I don’t think it really matters who starts this game for Florida, because three running backs will play and all are looking at mostly-equal touches. No single back has touched double-digit carries in any of the first three games, and Jordan Scarlett seems to be the snap count leader entirely because he’s able to catch (a decent amount of) the passes thrown toward him.
Freshman Dameon Pierce got nine carries against Charleston Southern and five in the two games following, despite a 68-yard bomb of a touchdown last week. I think he’s good. Malik Davis was the other receiving back, but he has a broken foot. Lamical Perine, to my eyes, is the most consistent of the three remaining backs, but ranks tied for last among the four backs on the season in total touches (14). Watch for athlete Kadarius Toney to get a couple of plays out of the backfield, possibly – fans have been clamoring for him to run the Wildcat just like Vols fans want Jauan Jennings to do so.
Van Jefferson and…?
It’s not a dominant target share like Marquez Callaway’s (nearly 28%) is for Tennessee, but Jefferson grabbing 21% of targets to be the team leader isn’t a surprise. He transferred from Ole Miss and seems to be the receiver Franks has the best rapport with. Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s always going to be at the top of the mountain; Jefferson only caught two of his six targets against Kentucky as the Cats rotated DBs on him throughout the night to keep fresh legs on him.
Behind him, it’s last year’s hero (because he got Butch Jones fired) Tyrie Cleveland, who has 37 yards on 5 receptions. Half of Cleveland’s 12 targets came against Kentucky, if that’s of any interest. Josh Hammond technically starts over him, but Freddie Swain is probably the second-best receiver, but he’s only seen a pass his way eight times this season. Same for Trevon Grimes, a 6’5″ second-stringer who’s been largely absent since the opener. Hammond himself has only seen four targets through the first three games and got just one last week, which was intercepted. In theory, Mullen’s offense typically uses 11 personnel, which requires a tight end, but they’ve made very little use of the tight end in the passing game thus far.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: forgettable OL
It’s not necessarily as bad as Tennessee’s has been at times, but it hasn’t been good against three teams not exactly known for their ferocious defenses. Florida’s OL has struggled mightily to consistently open holes on the ground, especially on first down; against Kentucky, eight of their 14 first down runs went for four yards or less. While only having three negative plays on the ground out of 27 isn’t terrible, 17 of the 27 going for four yards or fewer isn’t positive. The longest run of the night was a 21-yard Franks quarterback draw on third and 28.
Things were a bit better against Charleston Southern (19 of 38 for 5 or more yards) and Colorado State (15 of 28), but Florida’s rushing numbers in the latter game particularly were shored up by Pierce’s 68 yard run and Scarlett’s 30 yarder; the 26 other Florida runs went for 127 yards, or 4.9 yards per carry. Not terrible, certainly, but not the explosive 8 yards per carry it shows up as in the box score.
As for passing, Florida has only allowed four sacks so far, which is indeed fine. However, two of those came against Kentucky, along with four QB hurries allowed and the forced fumble at the end. (This also doesn’t count the amount of hits Franks took or times he was forced out of the pocket, which…was many.) They were unsurprisingly better against a Colorado State team that has two sacks total through four games, but…anyway, just watch this, it explains it better than I can.
Florida's offensive line is still a mess. https://t.co/BWx9C0cj3A
— David Wunderlich (@Year2) September 17, 2018
A land of contrasts on the DL
First, we must admit what we basically always admit when it comes to Florida: they’ve got a pair of very talented defensive ends.
Both Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga anchor the ends of this defensive line, with Zuniga generally lining up on the left side (hello, Trey Smith). Zuniga is in the first GIF, destroying a poor Colorado State tackle who definitely did NOT sign up for this. Zuniga was mostly absent through two games – three tackles, one TFL, and no sacks – before finally showing up against Colorado State. Hopefully, his 2.5 sack performance is something that won’t happen this week, but who knows.
The second GIF is Polite, who was basically the only defensive lineman playing worth anything for Florida against Kentucky. He has 7.5 tackles and a pair of TFLs through three games; plays that end with him slamming you to the ground average 2.1 yards. Regardless of who lines up against Drew Richmond, it is critical to supplant that side of the line with a tight end – perhaps one whose initials are DWA – to help block. If not, it might be a long night for Guarantano. It speaks to how good both Polite and Zuniga are that CeCe Jefferson, who’s pretty good himself when able to play, will be a backup Saturday night.
Weirdly, though, it’s the defensive tackles who haven’t shown much of anything for Florida. Elijah Conliffe and Tedarrell Slaton, the nominal starters, have combined for 1.5 run stuffs (gains of zero or negative yards), half a TFL, and zero QB hurries or sacks. If a Gators beat writer is openly saying this, you know it’s bad:
Watching #Gators again and I'm really underwhelmed by the defensive tackles. Not sure UF has one on the roster that can hold his ground against a double-team.
Routinely blown off those at POA. Gonna be a major problem in the SEC.
— Thomas Goldkamp (@ThomasGoldkamp) September 16, 2018
Look: I know Tennessee’s interior offensive line might be average at very best by the end of the year. However, this is a huge opportunity for them, especially Jerome Carvin, who’s struggled mightily on run blocking so far. (Strangely enough, he’s been the team’s best pass blocker. Riddle me that one.) Both Johnsons should feel pressure to perform well in an advantageous situation, too. As for the tackles…well, start praying that Trey Smith regains whatever got sapped from him in Charlotte, because he’s sucked the last two weeks.
(Those angles! That tackling!)
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham prefers to line up in a 3-4 scheme wherever he’s been, to varying degrees of success. (Anyone remember his 2013 Georgia defense, and how Tennessee put up more points against it than any other Power Five team?) He’d certainly prefer to at Florida. One problem: he can’t, because Florida doesn’t have four playable linebackers. Heck, it’s hard to confidently say they’ve got three.
How’d it end up like this, you may ask? Two words: Jim McElwain.
Florida’s linebackers, by 247 Recruiting Rank:
- Jeremiah Moon: 307th nationally, 20th OLB, 4*
- David Reese: 414th nationally, 15th ILB, 3*
- Vosean Joseph: 643rd nationally, 42nd OLB, 3*
- James Houston: 648th nationally, 43rd OLB, 3*
- Kylan Johnson: 796th nationally, 3*
- Rayshad Jackson: 1,665th nationally, 110th OLB, 3*
Wanna know how you get pantsed by Kentucky at home? Have a linebacking corps that looks like Kentucky’s.
“Florida’s linebackers weren’t good in pass coverage last year. They aren’t good at it this year, either. . . . I think it’s for this reason why Florida stayed in its 3-3-5 base much of the game despite UK’s success running the ball. Grantham did employ a fair number of five-man fronts, but as I described above, it was still in the nickel with a guy like [safety Donovan] Stiner essentially playing linebacker. Stiner is better than Florida’s linebackers at coverage, so it makes sense on that level.
The thing, though, is that fixing the linebacker pass coverage problem created a new one of not being as effective as they could be against the run. . . . The roster is what it is at this point, and so the coaches will have to decide which tradeoffs are worth it.”
Secret Gators Playbook That Has 17 Plays for Dominick Wood-Anderson: ENGAGE.
Extremely injured secondary, but with a rising star
C.J. Henderson, regardless of what team he plays for, is pretty awesome. He’s already got two deflections and the interception above this year and gave up a solid 8.3 passer rating when targeted the first two games. (No updated number here yet, but he looked good on video against Colorado State.) The other noteworthy player in the secondary is strong safety Jeawon Taylor, who looked like a solid, quality player. The rest…well…
#Gators give up an easy TD over the middle. Colorado State takes advantage of an inexperienced secondary.
— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) September 15, 2018
Florida's secondary needs to keep working on its tackling. It's not very good.
— Robbie Andreu (@RobbieAndreu) September 15, 2018
Well there’s your problem!
Marco Wilson, who starred last season, is out for the year with a torn ACL at a position that was already thin due to preseason injuries. Brian Edwards is listed as the only backup cornerback on the depth chart. Excluding the first game against Charleston Southern (a triple option team), the Gators are allowing nearly 60% of passes to be completed, gave up 9.4 yards per attempt to Kentucky, and, in general, are struggling to get off the field on passing downs (99th in third and long success rate, 105th in third and medium).
Whether that carries over Saturday is anyone’s guess with such a small sample size, but the path seems clear here, too. Guarantano should have an ample amount of opportunities to hit open receivers. We covered Franks’ numbers earlier, and here’s Guarantano’s:
- 4 of 11 of pass attempts of 20+ yards (9 of 25 in 2017)
- 7 of 9 on pass attempts of 10-19 yards (Franks: 8 of 21)
- 28 of 34 (82.4%) on all other pass attempts, with one drop – adjusted completion percentage of 29/34 (85.3%)
- 24 of 29 (83%) on pass attempts off a play fake; 16 of 25 (64%) without
- 23 of 29 (79.3%) on pass attempts over the middle of the field
So, hey, pretty good. Guarantano is notably very good at throwing in the middle of the field, is at his very best off of play fakes, and seems to have a pretty accurate touch within 20 yards. Hmmm…it’s almost as if this might hit on all of Florida’s coverage problems, potentially!
Other general defensive notes
I didn’t get to him in the linebacker piece because he’s a hybrid LB/safety (STAR position), but Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is pretty good in coverage. He also had a 26.0% missed tackle rate in 2017 (the worst among qualified players in the SEC, per CFB Film Room), and it doesn’t look much better in 2018. David Reese is probably the best of the main linebackers.
A key reason why Florida’s defensive line is a bit of a disappointment thus far: Taven Bryan’s departure. Bryan, the Jaguars’ first round pick, was an elite run stopper at Florida. Figuring out his replacement should be fun to watch. In Florida’s weirdo 3-3-5 setup that ends up looking more like a 4-2-5, you’ll likely see both Polite and Zuniga take the “end” spots on the line, with CeCe Jefferson rotating in for probably 30-40% of snaps. Lastly, Florida has struggled on third downs so far. Opponents are converting 42% of them despite the average third down distance being 8.5 yards. They’ve allowed opponents to convert 13 of 23 third downs of six yards or shorter (7 of 24 on seven yards or longer, which still only ranks 99th nationally). It is a must that Tennessee gets positive yardage on first and second downs; a missed block that leads to a three-yard loss will devastate a drive.
The other Townsend is here! Tommy, a former Vol, now punts for Florida after his brother departed for the Oakland Raiders. He’s been fine thus far, with five of his eight punts landing inside the 20. The new kicker is Evan McPherson, a freshman who’s made five of six so far. He’s only attempted one kick from further than 35 yards. (He made it.) Punt returner Freddie Swain ripped off a huge touchdown last week and appears fairly scary. Nothing to say about kick returns. No one has returned a punt on Florida yet, but Colorado State did get a 51-yard return on Saturday. One potential issue: Florida has blocked three kicks so far in 2018. Tennessee’s blocked two, of course, and no one’s really threatened Joe Doyle or Brent Cimaglia yet, but this will be a different test. As the old saying goes: you probably can’t win this game on special teams, but you can definitely lose it.
This is what you’ve all been waiting for. Somehow, you’ve survived 3,600 words to find the answer to the most important question of all. HERE IT IS: the top five most painful losses to Florida in my lifetime (1993 – present).
- 2014. CONTROVERSY. Look, I get it: 2015 was more uniquely painful, 2017 had a brutal ending, and countless others have probably had a worse impact. But NO game was dumber than 2014. Justin Worley’s arm was hanging out of its socket for the entire second half, and it didn’t matter. Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian had 68 offensive plays to work with in this game, and 46 were dropbacks. MORE THAN TWO-THIRDS, without a functioning quarterback. Jesus, this still makes me angry.
- 2015. Fourth and 14 from an SEC East title. Will send any fan my age into a murderous tailspin just thinking about it. Tennessee should be at least 3-1 against Florida since 2014.
- 2000. Losing a game on a “touchdown” that almost certainly would not be a touchdown in 2018 really does emphasize Tennessee’s unique ability to find new ways to lose.
- 2006. To be honest, I forget about this one, because this wasn’t the best Tennessee team in my lifetime and because the game itself was a dreadful watch. But Tennessee absolutely should not have lost this game, it was NOT a block in the back on the interception return, and Tim Tebow was the reason Tennessee didn’t start 8-0. I hope his minor league career ends in shambles.
- Not 2017. 1999. I’d understand anyone who puts 2017 in these lists, because losing on a Hail Mary is one of the three worst ways to lose a football game. (Missed field goal and egregious officiating error are the other two.) What you’ve got to take into context, though, is that the loss really turned the Butch Jones Implosion into overdrive and accelerated the process of getting him out. 1999’s loss was the first after the championship, and losing while driving into Florida territory because Jamal Lewis got stuffed on fourth down is very tough to swallow.
Likewise, Tennessee has beaten Florida five times since I’ve been alive. God, that’s terrible. Here’s how I’d rank how joyful those were:
- 2001. Obviously.
- 1998. I’ll get flack for this, but here’s my reasoning: 2001 was a better game, you had to wait three additional months for it, and the stakes were significantly higher. 1998 gets the publicity; 2001 gets the gold.
- 2016. 38 in a row.
- 2004. I can’t believe that this ended up fourth, because this game ranks as a top ten favorite win for me. James Wilhoit’s redemption was great, sure, but people forget that the two teams alternated scores until the very end. It was excellent football, and Dallas Baker is forever a Tennessee hero for slapping Jonathan Wade and giving Tennessee 15 free yards.
- 2003. Awful game, and you only remember the one play.
Anyway, onward. 2018’s game is between two decaying franchises desperately clinging to past successes, hoping to one day return. Both are set up somewhat well to do so – it’s not particularly difficult to win at either school or to recruit – but time is running out on both as relevant entities. This game, as diminished as it looks now, could end up being a serious boost to the program who wins it.
And yet, some caution: losing it won’t destroy either program. Tennessee’s preseason expectations were simply to make a bowl game; a weirdly high amount of Florida fans were expecting 8-9 wins, but it should be clear by now that they and Tennessee are more similar than different. Florida’s November schedule sets up excellently for a 3-1 or 4-0 run to close the season; if they can get to November at 3-5 or better, they’ll be fine. Same with Tennessee, as you know.
This game in particular is weirdly fascinating. Both teams bring some serious advantages to the table that could cause the other headaches. Florida’s defensive ends are clearly better than what Tennessee’s got at least at right tackle, but Tennessee’s quarterback has shown major improvement in getting the ball out quickly and he’s been very accurate thus far. Tennessee’s running backs could give Florida’s interior linemen some bruises, and Dominick Wood-Anderson could have a field day against these linebackers. Tennessee doesn’t have a pass rush to speak of yet, but Franks has actually been much better when there is one – he’s 12 of 19 when blitzed and 3 of 14 when facing a standard three or four-man rush.
How about weaknesses vs. weaknesses? Tennessee’s cornerbacks have shown lapses in judgment due to youth, but Franks’ inaccuracy and struggles may play to their advantage, especially Bryce Thompson’s. Tennessee’s offensive line has been bad, but Florida’s interior linemen haven’t produced anything of note to date. Florida doesn’t have a second receiver, but Tennessee doesn’t have a second cornerback (maybe). Jonathan Kongbo vs. Anyone on the edge will be hilarious. Watching Dan Mullen call eight designed runs by Feleipe Franks will be even funnier.
That’s what makes this game so hard to project. Both teams, clearly, are better than their 2017 counterparts. They have strengths. They have serious weaknesses. They’ve also dealt with small sample sizes. To date, Tennessee has probably been more impressive, but in their one true test so far, they got whooped. So did Florida, though. Because we only know about 40% of what each team is right now, there’s a lot that can still happen. Do not discount an accidental shootout (read: both teams top 28 points), and do not discount a repeat of 2014. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but none of us know that for certain. (Within one standard deviation, the final in-game total should end up between 40 and 56.)
For Tennessee to win, Guarantano must be efficient and ruthless on any short passes Florida gives him. These linebackers can’t tackle and he’s been excellent over the middle, so a five-yard shallow cross could turn into a 15-yard gain. Likewise, Tennessee seems likely to run the ball behind interior linemen more often than usual. There’s a serious fear of what Florida’s ends can do, and their DTs aren’t good. Defensively, it’s up to Pruitt to figure out which direction he’d rather go: do you go all in on forcing six rushers to the backfield as often as possible and let the defensive backs try and handle it, or will a standard four-man rush be more suited to the task in terms of containing Franks’ legs and forcing him to think more about passing? This is a massively important game for both Alexis Johnson and Kyle Phillips, two fine players who need better than a fine performance. Lastly, Tennessee absolutely must force Florida into several third-and-long situations; the Gators are 3 of 16 (18.8%) in converting third-and-7 or longer in 2018.
To me, this is a pure coin flip, and the numbers agree – S&P+ has this at Florida -0.3, Billingsley a literal tie, Tempo-Free Football Florida -1, a CFB Matrix/S&P+ regression at Vols -0.3, and so on. (Sagarin has Gators -3.7 and FPI Gators -7.7, for the record.) It’s not that surprising, because several games just in this decade have been within a coin flip’s range in Vegas: 2003, 2004, 2006, 2012, 2014, 2015. None of those featured more than five-point spreads. Tennessee lost the last four of those, of course, but they’ve been absurdly unlucky to couple with self-inflicted faults: Tennessee hasn’t won the turnover margin against Florida since 1999 (they’ve committed 47 turnovers to Florida’s 28 since, and the last four years have all been turnover margin ties), which would be impossible to replicate twice, and the adjusted scoring margins based on box scores suggest Tennessee should be about 4-10 in their last 14 against Florida, not 1-13.
If you believe in the power of regression to the mean, you should believe Tennessee’s time in this series is coming. It’s long overdue. (Imagine how much different everything would feel if Tennessee had won in 2006, 2010 (a game that Tennessee may have won if Tyler Bray had started), and 2014, the three games the box scores singled out as the most-likely wins, with 2015 close behind.) You should believe that, in theory, it’s hard as hell for a team to not stumble their way into winning the turnover margin once in 19 games. Or, maybe you’re like me: you see all the bad stuff that’s happened in this series and believe that Florida, like any team in college football, will have their luck run out eventually. Or maybe you understand Feleipe Franks isn’t good, Florida’s defense has struggled quite a bit against the run and struggles to get off the field on passing downs, and their offense looked horrid against the one Power 5 team they’ve played so far.
So, in a coin flip in a month where Tennessee was more likely to go 3-1 than 2-2 preseason and they’re beyond due for a positive bounce, I’ll stick with the odds, and with Jarrett Guarantano being the best quarterback on the field. Tennessee 24, Florida 21.