Volunteers have No. 9 Gators’ attention

Florida offensive lineman Brett Heggie (61) and the rest of his linemates need a big game today against Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent]

At the time, during Florida’s early bye week, it seemed like a good thing that many of the Gator players had a chance to watch Tennessee’s opener against Georgia State.

With UT Martin up next on UF’s schedule, the Vols’ stunning 38-30 loss to the Panthers served as a valuable lesson for why you never take an opponent lightly. Never. If the Vols’ could lose at home to Georgia State, anyone could lose to anybody, and so on and so forth.

But now that the Vols are in town, the Gators probably would be best served by erasing any memories they have of that nightmarish game for the Vols. Because that UT team is a lot different than the one the Gators will be facing today.

At least that’s coach Dan Mullen’s take on it.

“They have a lot of talent across the board,” Mullen said. “If you look at how their year has gone, they’re a much better team than they’re getting credit for.

“You look at the talent they have. They have some great skill players at receiver and running back. They’ve got an experienced quarterback. They’ve got a lot of young, talented guys on defense. They roll guys through.

“I think maybe some of the criticism they’ve gotten early this year might not be as justified as people think with the young players and talent they have. They’re going to have a pretty good year.”

It has been a disastrous start for the Vols. The loss to Georgia State was one of the low points in the program’s history. Throwing away a game at home to BYU the following week seemed almost as devastating.

Those back-to-back losses created a massive meltdown in Knoxville — and a national perception that the Vols are a mess and heading nowhere.

Things don’t seem quite as dire now after last week. While the Vols were rolling to a 45-0 win over Chattanooga that restored some confidence, BYU was rising up to take down Southern Cal. That UT loss to BYU doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad as it did just two weeks ago.

“You look at it, they’re beating BYU and kind of a fluke play at the end of the game allows BYU to tie it to go to overtime,” Mullen said. “All of a sudden a week later, BYU is beating Southern Cal. Like, ‘OK, that (UT) team is a little different than we thought.”

Statistically, other than the two losses the Vols certainly don’t look like a dysfunctional team. They appear very functional. They’re averaging 33.7 points and 394.0 yards a game on offense. Defensively, they’re giving up only 306.0 yards a game.

Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has thrown for 629 yards and seven touchdowns and is completing 65.8 percent of his passes. Wide receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway have combined for six TD receptions. Ty Chandler and Eric Gray give the Vols a nice one-two punch in the running game.

The Vols definitely have the attention of a banged up Florida defense that likely will be playing without two of its best players today — cornerback CJ Henderson (sprained ankle) and end Jabari Zuniga (sprained ankle). UF also will be playing the first half minus starting safety Donovan Stiner, who was ejected from last Saturday’s game for targeting in the second half.

“Oh yeah, (it’s a team we’re aware of),” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “It’s an SEC game. It’s the SEC. It’s Florida-Tennessee. For them it’s the beginning of a new season from the standpoint of first league game. It’s our chance to play at home in The Swamp in an SEC game.

“Any time you’re playing an SEC game it’s a big game. So it’s really big for us. We have to understand that we have to play well.”

Today’s big storyline for Florida, of course, is that Kyle Trask will be starting his first game at quarterback since his freshman year of high school. There’s an element of the unknown with Trask, but he is on somewhat of a roll. In his last three quarters (against UK and UT Martin this season and South Carolina last season), he’s completed 23 of 36 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also run for a TD.

He was impressive coming off the bench last week after starter Feleipe Franks went down with a dislocated ankle. He rallied the Gators from a 21-10 deficit, completing nine of 13 passes for 126 yards and leading UF to a 29-21 victory with a 19-point fourth quarter.

“He’s a guy who stuck it out, continued to work, continued to develop, continued to be prepared (even though he wasn’t playing),” Mullen said. “He knew he was a good player. We all knew he was a good player. He was ready for his opportunity when the time came.

“Obviously, (the thing that sticks out) is the character and mental toughness that he’s shown.”