Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have to pass a running test to beat Florida tonight.
The No. 23 Volunteers (0-0, 2-0) will attempt to snap a seven-game losing streak when they host No. 18 Florida (1-0, 2-0) at 6 p.m. (ESPN).
The Volunteers haven’t beaten the Gators since Ron Zook was still there (2004), and their inability to run the ball has been an almost constant culprit. In fact, despite all of the notable passers who’ve played in this series – Peyton Manning, Danny Wuerffel, Casey Clausen, Rex Grossman, Chris Leak, Erik Ainge – the team that has rushed for the most yardage has won 18 of the series’ last 20 games.
But it might be 18 for 21 after tonight.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley isn’t hell-bent on running the ball just for the sake of series history. The Volunteers’ forte is passing, and Florida allowed Texas A&M first-year starter Johnny Manziel to complete 23 of 30 passes last week in the Gators’ 20-17 win. Also, Florida’s secondary should be without injured defensive back Cody Riggs, as well as linebacker Jelani Jenkins.
Of course, most pressing in Tennessee’s game plan is the fact that it still frequently comes up short when it hands the ball off, certainly compared to when 6-foot-6 junior quarterback Tyler Bray drops back to pass to targets such as 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter, 6-foot-3 Cordarrelle Patterson and 6-foot-3 tight end Mychal Rivera.
“They’ve done a nice job with their no-huddle package of getting in and out of the right looks in the run game and the throwing game, and taking it to the right places,” Florida second-year coach Will Muschamp said. “(Bray) really does a nice job, and Hunter and Patterson are really good players, and Rivera’s a player that gives you some issues at tight end. … We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Tennessee’s ground game went backward last year – minus 9 yards rushing – in a 33-23 loss at the Swamp, Dooley doesn’t sound like a coach who expects his team to do much running today. But he sounds like one he expects to see it do some scoring.
“Well, balance is important, but the most important thing is trying to generate some points,” Dooley said, “and anyway you can do it, we’l l try to figure it out. It is hard to win a game, especially in this league, when you’re minus nine rushing; that’s for sure. And so we’ve got to do a good job of mixing it up. But we’ve got to throw and catch pretty good, too.”
Florida’s offense is under first-year coordinator Brent Pease, who previously held the same position at Boise State. The Gators sputtered at Texas A&M, and struggled more in the opener at home against Bowling Green, and Pease seems more impressed by Tennessee’s size, speed and aggression.
Florida is more interested in controlling the ball than getting in track meets now that speedy backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey have moved on, and relatively inexperienced quarterback Jeff Driskel is under center.
Driskell is 23 of 32 for 276 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, and winning at Kyle Field last week was good preparation for what should be a raucous atmosphere tonight.
Senior Mike Gillislee (58 carries, 231 yards, four TDs) is the feature back with Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey gone, but the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has been slowed by a groin injury. Junior tight end Jordan Reed is a concern for UT.
“Any time you have a good run game the tight end’s always important for the play-actions, the quick flats, when you’re in there hammering it in the run,” Dooley said. “So he’s a weapon. … I’m sure he’ll be playing in the NFL one day, and he makes that offense harder to defend.”
Tennessee is ranked for the first time since the 2008 preseason poll and the Vols are favored against Florida, although Danny Sheridan’s spread fell from three to 2 1/2 points on Friday.
“We’ll find out a little bit more about our team,” Dooley said. “Obviously, we’ve had a good start, but we’ve done that before, and what matters is the kind of consistency you play with week in and week out. This will be our toughest test of the season so far.”
Notes: Dooley emerged from last week’s blowout victory against Georgia State concerned about his kicker, and promptly benched Michael Palardy in favor of Derrick Brodus, a walk-on from Alcoa. Brodus made national headlines last year when he performed well against Middle Tennessee after being called at a fraternity house shortly before kickoff because Palardy was injured and backup Chip Rhome strained a muscle in warm-ups. Brodus has proven to be an accurate kicker without a strong leg. Palardy, a junior who has been inconsistent most of his career, missed a field goal and a PAT last week. … Dooley was asked this week about having to replace seven assistant coaches in the offseason. “Well, it’s certainly not an ideal situation, but I think the important thing is if you start with people who believe in what you believe philosophically … And they’ve done a remarkable job of making the transition seamless. I mean, the guys that I hired didn’t hesitate, and I think they had a good understanding of where we were. …
ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Knoxville for the first time since Auburn visited in 2004.