By Robbie Andreu and Graham Hall, Gatorsports.com writers
No. 23 Tennessee (2-0) at No. 24 Florida (0-1)
Today: 3:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: CBS/103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Florida by 4.5.
Series record: Florida leads 26-20.
A statement game for McElwain’s Gators?
There won’t be any warm-up games for Feleipe Franks. The redshirt freshman quarterback, set to make his second collegiate start Saturday, will once again face a ranked opponent in Tennessee. And if the Gators can down the Volunteers, avoiding consecutive losses to their division rival in the process, they’ll evade breaking an unfortunate record. That mark is an 0-2 record to begin the season, something Florida hasn’t done since 1971. Factor in the Gators haven’t lost to Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in more than a decade and it becomes apparent a loss will be a low point in the Jim McElwain (pictured above) era. Fortunately for Gator fans, McElwain has led UF to an 11-1 record at home during his time in Gainesville.
Gators open well at home
Florida’s bout with Northern Colorado was canceled due to Hurricane Irma, and today’s matchup with the Volunteers was up in the air until a Tuesday confirmation from Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin that the game would remain in Gainesville. Nevertheless, it will have been 308 days since UF last took the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Considering it’s the team’s home opener, however, the Gators may be at an advantage. Despite having its record of season-opening wins broken Sept. 2 vs. Michigan in Arlington, Texas, Florida’s record of 27 home openers without a loss remains unbroken. Will another record fall at the hands of Butch Jones and the Volunteers?
UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is being moved back upstairs, but will retain play-calling duty. The UF fanbase has been clamoring for a change, yet this move likely isn’t the one they’re looking for. Nussmeier called plays upstairs during his first season in Gainesville and at Alabama in 2012, but has spent the past two seasons on the sideline with the Gators. Regardless of whether or not Nussmeier’s transition sparks life into UF’s offense, Tennessee’s defense undoubtedly is familiar with his strategies and methods. UT’s defensive line coach is Brady Hoke, the former Michigan head coach who brought Nussmeier to Ann Arbor to run his offense in 2014.
Hold on to the ball
They say turnovers decide games, and that’s certainly been true for the Florida Gators recently. Under coach Jim McElwain, the Gators are 10-1 when the team has won the turnover battle. Furthermore, the Gators are 40-11 since 2011 when they’ve either won or tied the turnover battle. In the Sept. 2 tilt with Michigan, the Gators didn’t throw an interception while forcing QB Wilton Speight into a pair of INTs that UF swiftly returned for TDs. But Florida fumbled the ball three times, including one by QB Malik Zaire that resulted in a touchdown for the Wolverines. Today will show whether the Gators emphasized ball security over the past two weeks of preparation. Time will tell if Tennessee’s young defense can force turnovers out of a UF offense missing its top two playmakers due to suspensions.
Where are those playmakers?
Throughout preseason camp, the Gators talked a lot about now having plenty of playmakers on offense. Enough, in fact, to absorb the loss of suspended wide receiver Antonio Callaway. But those alleged playmakers basically didn’t show up in the opener. The longest run by a running back was for only eight yards (by true freshman Malik Davis), slot receivers Brandon Powell, Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney combined for four receptions for only 20 yards and there was only one reception by a tight end (C’yontai Lewis). The goal this week is to get the ball to the playmakers and let them impact the game, something they did not have a chance to do in the loss two weeks ago.
O-line looks to rebound
For a position group that has been touted as a team strength, it certainly was a humbling experience two weeks ago for the Florida offensive line, which was mauled and manhandled by the Michigan defensive front. It was also alarming for an offensive coaching staff that built its game plan around the belief that the line play would be solid and give quarterback Feleipe Franks sufficient time to execute it. Jim McElwain likes to stretch the field with the vertical passing game, but it’s close to impossible to execute that phase of the offense when the quarterback is running for his life or on his back, something we saw vs. Michigan. And, if there is no running game to speak of, something we also saw two weeks ago, the play-action passing game isn’t going to work, either. The line went back this week and tried to correct mistakes. If the execution up front isn’t better this week, against a defensive front it should be able to block, then the offense is in for a long, long season. So, this is a crucial game for the big guys.
Defense looking to improve, too
With the offense breaking down and failing to sustain drives, the Florida defense once again was called on to try and carry the offense in the Michigan game. It really didn’t work out like it has in the past. The defense was very good for a decent stretch in the first half, but in perhaps the biggest possession of the game, Michigan drove 87 yards on 15 plays for a touchdown to open the second half and set the trend for the remainder of the game. On that possession, the Gators were vulnerable against the run and the pass. The young secondary made some mistakes and some defensive linemen got out of their gaps on some cutback runs that kept the drive alive. So, just like the offense, the defense has a lot to clean up following the Michigan mess. The Gators will be tested today by a young and improving UT offense that has great speed at wide receiver.
Today’s game questions
• Will the Gators come out flat or energized coming off the hurricane and last week’s canceled game?
• Can a young Florida secondary contain a potentially potent Tennessee passing game?
• Will offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier open up the playbook and be a little more creative than he was against Michigan now that he’ll be calling plays from the press box?
• Can Florida’s beleaguered offensive line block the susceptible UT defensive front, or will the Gators get dominated up front like two weeks ago?
• Will quarterback Feleipe Franks be successful running the offense or will he struggle and get pulled like two weeks ago?
Click back later after the game for Andreu’s answers
Florida kickers and kick coverage teams vs. Tennessee returners Evan Berry and Ty Chandler:
This is a matchup that could ultimately determine the outcome of today’s game. Florida’s kickers — punter Johnny Townsend and place-kicker Eddy Pineiro — have been game changers. Townsend with his ability to flip field position (he’s averaging 54.7 yards a punt) and Pineiro with his consistency getting touchbacks on kickoffs and converting field-goal attempts. They, along with the coverage teams, will have to be on top of their game today because Berry and Chandler also are game changers. Berry is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men. He was a kick return All-American in 2015 and his career kickoff return average of 34.6 yards is No. 1 in the NCAA. Chandler is equally electric. He opened last week’s win over Indiana State with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.