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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

UF faces first true test in conference rival Tennessee

UF may have already played two games, but it seems like Saturday's matchup with No. 22 Tennessee is the start of a whole new season.

After blowout wins over Western Kentucky and Troy, the No. 5 Gators (2-0) will get their first test of the year while opening up their Southeastern Conference schedule.

It will also be a final exam of sorts for quarterback Tim Tebow, who will have his first start in a pressure-packed environment.

For Tebow, the game will mark more than just a chance to shine. The sophomore was raised a UF fan, and he is a human encyclopedia of information on the rivalry.

"I'll hear him make a comment about something that happened 15 years ago with Florida football," Coach Urban Meyer said. "Being raised in the Tebow family, with them being Gators, there's no need for me to sit and explain to Tim how important this game is. He'll look at me like I'm nuts."

In his first two starts, Tebow was nearly flawless, completing 31 of 42 passes for 536 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 131 yards and three scores on 25 carries.

His quarterback rating of 228.15 is second only to Oklahoma's Sam Bradford.

Meanwhile, the Volunteers (1-1) are No. 89 in the nation in pass defense, surrendering an average of more than 252 yards per game through the air against California and Southern Mississippi.

To make matters worse for Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, starting cornerback Antonio Gaines suffered a season-ending ACL tear last weekend.

Talented freshman Eric Berry will start instead, making an already suspect secondary even shakier.

The challenge for the Gators will be to slow down the Vols' dynamic quartet at running back.

Arian Foster, Lennon Creer, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker combined for an average of more than 163 yards per game in their first two games.

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Foster earned most of the workload after Coker was suspended from the team before the season began.

Coker worked his way back onto the squad for last week's win against Southern Miss and may now pose the biggest threat to the Gators - the speedster led the team in rushing last year, averaging 6.4 yards per carry.

Behind an offensive line filled with 300-pounders, the four-headed monster could cause problems for UF's unproven defense.

The Gators have allowed just 101 total rushing yards in their two contests this year, but that was against spread offenses that gained most of their yardage through the air.

Tennessee senior quarterback Erik Ainge will take on UF's pass defense, which is ranked No. 62 after giving up 439 passing yards to Western Kentucky and Troy.

Ainge was one of the nation's most efficient passers in 2006, and he has started off with five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his first two contests.

"Tennessee is more of a running team, but we still have to be aware of the pass," UF safety Dorian Munroe said.

"It's different from the first two games because they both had more of a spread offense. This team is more down-the-field, so we have to be ready to stay on top of the deep balls."

X's and O's aside, the game will be an excellent opportunity for the Gators' young players to experience a big rivalry game and gain poise for the rest of the SEC schedule.

"I want them to be excited," Meyer said. "I want them to hyperventilate a little

bit. I want them to play as hard as they can. And that's going to happen."

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