Abolverdi's analysis: Gators vs. Volunteers similar to '01, but not same setup

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida linebacker Andra Davis (45) attempts to tackle Tennessee running back Travis Stephens (34) during the 2001 game at Florida Field. The Vols won 34-32.

This year’s Florida-Tennessee matchup has shades of the rivalry in 2001. 

UF’s quarterback is a Heisman Trophy candidate, the Gators are a championship contender and the game has to be played in December due to rescheduling. COVID-19 was the reason this season, 9/11 the first time around. 

And like the '01 team, No. 5 Florida (7-1) has just one road loss by three points to an SEC West team before facing Tennessee. Dan Mullen’s squad has won five consecutive games since losing at Texas A&M, while the Vols are losers of five in a row. 

And that’s where Saturday’s game differs most from 2001. 

Tennessee was ranked fifth nationally that season, setting the stage for a top-five matchup against No. 2 Florida and star quarterback Rex Grossman. The Vols ruined UF’s national title hopes with a 34-32 upset, punching their ticket to Atlanta with the program’s first win in Gainesville in 30 years. 

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Tennessee is looking to play spoiler again, but Travis Stephens — who gashed the Gators for 226 yards in 2001 — isn’t running through that tunnel. 

Florida will face a struggling football team that could be without senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who has started all seven games this season. Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday that one of his QBs has been affected by COVID-19 contact-tracing protocols, and freshman Harrison Bailey is expected to make his first career start against the Gators.

That’s not a recipe for success, especially against a UF defense that pitched a second-half shutout last week with three interceptions. Todd Grantham’s unit has struggled at times this season with third-down stops and allowing big plays, but UT is dead last in the SEC in third-down conversions and long scrimmage plays. 

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Florida, meanwhile, ranks third in both categories and leads the league in passing offense with quarterback Kyle Trask, who is tied with Grossman for the third-most touchdown passes in a season (34) in school history. 

Trask should surpass him Saturday, but the key for him and the offense will be getting off to a fast start at Rocky Top. In the past two games, the Gators have found themselves trailing 10-7 in the second quarter to a team with a losing record.

They average 43.4 points per game, but were held under 40 by both Vanderbilt and Kentucky. UF scored 47 in its last trip to Knoxville and I think Trask & Co. will put up similar numbers.

Prediction: Florida 45, Tennessee 13.