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Florida can clinch SEC East title by beating Tennessee

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts tries to shake a Tennessee defender after making a catch during last year's game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators beat the Volunteers 34-3.

Every week, Florida coach Dan Mullen makes a list of team goals for the upcoming game. 

Winning is, of course, priority No. 1. 

“There are weekly goals within our program that we have each week what we want to do,” Mullen said.

A victory at Tennessee, however, would accomplish a year-long goal for UF — win the SEC East. The No. 5 Gators (7-1) can clinch their first division title since 2016 by beating Tennessee (2-5) in Knoxville on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS).

Their next road trip would be to Atlanta. 

“Shoot, the goal first is to beat Tennessee this week,” defensive tackle Kyree Campbell said. “And then we'll get to Alabama, or the SEC championship. Right now, the focus is this week.”

No. 1 Alabama (8-0) can clinch the Western division Saturday with a win at LSU.

Before the Gators can look ahead to the conference title game Dec. 19, they must take care of Tennessee and, more importantly, improve on both sides of the ball before they’re ready for a potential matchup with the top-ranked Tide. 

Mullen said his team still hasn’t played a complete game. Their efforts have been good enough to win in all but one week (at Texas A&M), and they may be able to punch their ticket to Atlanta with another ho-hum performance at Rocky Top. 

The Vols have lost five straight, starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano could be sidelined due to COVID-19 contact-tracing protocols and linebacker Kivon Bennett — the team’s leader in tackles for loss and sacks — was dismissed this week. 

The Gators can beat Tennessee without a complete game, but they’ll need one against Alabama. 

And those weekly goals that Mullen mentioned?

Florida accomplished just one of them last week against Kentucky. 

“There’s a list of them. We hit the win goal. We won. That was one of them. So, we hit one of them,” Mullen said. “We didn’t hit any of our goals offensively going into the game, so I don’t think we played very well there. … Defensively, I think we missed some fits in the run game last week.”

Third-down conversions was one of the goals missed, Mullen said, with the offense converting just three of nine third-down attempts against the Wildcats. Florida offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said his unit left eight points on the field in red-zone possessions and potentially 14 points on two lost fumbles. 

“Obviously, we did not play well as an offense last week,” Johnson said. “You can’t turn the ball over twice, put our defense in a terrible situation. Those guys did a great job only giving up 10 points with us giving them the ball twice on their side of the field. 

“We have to play much cleaner. We have to execute at a much higher level and not waste opportunities. It’s always fun to play Tennessee. Our players will be fired up to hit the road and go put on a good show.”

UF has made strides on the defensive side of the ball after a rough start to the season, but is still giving up third-down conversions and explosive plays. Kentucky controlled the clock last Saturday in the first half, which featured a heated sideline exchange between Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, but his unit responded with a second-half shutout and three interceptions. 

The Florida secondary could have another big day if freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey makes his first collegiate start in place of Guarantano. 

“I would really like to see us play a consistent game all the way through,” Grantham said. “If you go back through it, they’re really good times and all the sudden they’ll be an explosive play. That’s a credit to the team we’re playing … but as we move forward, there’s opportunities for us to make plays out there. 

“For example, in the last game we had three picks in the second half. Those opportunities have been there throughout the course of the year. It’s a matter of making those plays. So our ability to be consistent in our play and finish those drives off is something that would allow us to continue to reach our goals.”

Today

Who: No. 5 Florida (7-1) vs. Tennessee (2-5)

When: 3:30 p.m. 

Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850