Before the Gators travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, to face the No. 11 Volunteers, I spoke with Josh Lane, sports editor of the Daily Beacon, to preview the latest chapter in a divisional feud more than 50 years in the making.
The rivalry between the Gators and the Vols is a storied one, the matchup used to decide the East and usually the whole SEC on a regular basis back in the day. After Florida's run of wins over the past decade, this series has become a lot more competitive again. With all that said, What is Neyland Stadium going to be like Saturday afternoon?
Lane: It's gonna be a great atmosphere and that's really selling it short, just to call it that. It's already sold out. It's sold out, before Tennessee even played Akron last week. Obviously it's Florida, so everyone's super excited to be there. They're doing the checkered Neyland so aesthetically it's going to be a pretty good look. I would say it's one of the biggest games every year. You go deep into Tennessee Twitter and they call it Florida hate week. I think because it's been so one sided that's kind of fueled the rivalry, at least from Tennessee's perspective. They just can't stand Florida.
I think now, after years of just getting beat up and beat up and beat up, there's a chance. The numbers haven't favored Tennessee in a while and there's a chance to beat Florida here. It's gonna be at home, in front of a huge crowd, College Gameday is here, all these other things are here, CBS primetime, in front of a big atmosphere. I think it's kind of welled up due to the fact that years of losing this rivalry in pretty spectacular fashion and now having a chance. This one is going to be an incredible atmosphere.
Moving on the field, Florida got its first look at Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker last season and he performed well in a game even though the Gators had a pretty firm grasp on that game from beginning to end. Now that he has more control on the starting position, what has Hooker's improvement looked like from last season to this season and what can be expected from him on Saturday?
Lane: With Hooker and the offense in general, I'd say that Hooker being in the system for a year plus, at this point, the pace is just so fast, so different from what most other teams are doing in college football. You're just gonna see Tennessee run play after play after play. Seconds after the last one ends, they are lined up and snapping the ball. Hooker is throwing for a lot of touchdowns. He doesn't throw many turnovers. I think he's got two interceptions as a starter, three in his career here at Tennessee. So he takes care of the football and scores a lot of touchdowns. He's rising up in Tennessee's all-time rank already in just a short span.
Hooker takes care of the football and makes good decisions, this year especially. He's really been spreading the ball around to all these different receivers. Now it will be interesting with whatever happens with Cedric Tillman regarding his injury, but he's been giving a lot of different guys looks. Jalen highest is one that has stepped up. Ramel Keyton is another who's gotten a lot more targets and catches than he did a year ago. So he's kind of spread the ball around, but all while being super efficient in that really quick offense. Hooker's kind of, I wouldn't say perfected that, but he's really found himself a great role and has been super successful.
Over to the defensive side, Florida boasts an excellent trio of running backs. Who are the key players in Tennessee's front seven that can stifle UF's ground attack, because that's what the Gators are going to really focus on. Who are the players in Tennessee's defensive line and linebacker units that are going to try to limit Florida on the ground?
Lane: As far as defensive end, I would say Byron Young is probably Tennessee's best defensive end on the frontline. He's a big guy at defensive end, he's like six-foot-three-inches and weighs 245. He gets in there and creates a lot of pressure. One thing Tennessee's front seven in general has been doing and he does really well is generating tackles for loss. They've been getting so much pressure so quickly and at first, especially that Ball State game, it didn't really show as far as the numbers if you looked at sacks and even tackles for loss. It didn't really show in the stats, because they were getting the ball away so quickly, and that might be something Florida can do, get the ball out quick. But the Volunteers bring so much pressure they are really getting through there and disrupting the offensive line. So that'll be something interesting to see as far as the Gators' run game goes.
Linebacker wise I'd say the one to watch out for is Juwan Mitchell, former guy from Texas who you know was the Longhorn's leading tackler when he was there. Mitchell missed a lot of last year with injury. He missed the first two games of the year with an unspecified injury as well. So he finally came back against Akron. I don't really think he stood out on the stat sheet too much. He's kind of getting his feet wet, getting back into the flow of everything. He's really good player talent wise, you've seen it in the past, while you said Texas. So as he gets into the second game now and a full week of knowing he's going to play, seeing how he goes with that. He will be an important one to watch too.
Talking about the second unit of Tennessee's defense, the secondary, Richardson has been struggling with his confidence passing lately. You mentioned that Florida can take advantage of some quick throws. Where in the Vols secondary could Florida find some favorable matchups? And who should the Gators passing attack really be avoiding back there?
Lane: I would say this season there's no one person to avoid because this is by far Tennessee's weakest group and thinnest group right now, especially on defense. But Kamal Hadden has probably been Tennessee's best defensive back this season, and I think he's been playing a lot of corner, he's got maybe two interceptions or pass breakups. Hadden has probably been the best, just performance wise of Tennessee defensive backs. He didn't really play a ton before this year. He only had a handful of starts before coming in this year. So he's still kind of relatively inexperienced for a redshirt junior.
Senior Warren Burrell missed last week with some kind of unspecified injury as well, they're not sharing a lot of details, but we will see if he plays. His backup, Dee Williams, was out too. Again, it's just a thin group, and kind of inexperienced. Jaylen McCollough is the other one who stands out, maybe even Trevon Flowers. Those two are seniors who have played a lot. Besides them, it's really inexperienced all around so I think it'd be a favorable matchup for Florida regardless of who plays because Tennessee's secondary is just open right now. It's a big question mark.
Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has pretty much put the Vols back on the college football map. The team is ranked No. 11 in the country coming into the game. What's been the key factors to the program's turnaround and what do you think Tennessee's ceiling is this season?
Lane: Heupel has definitely been at the center of that and what he's done offensively, like I mentioned earlier, the fast paced offense is something not many teams are having success with right now. Tennessee is an outlier in that sense that no one moves as fast. Runs an offense as fast as what Tennessee does. Having him and Hooker, who came via the transfer portal and Virginia Tech. I mean he didn't even start last year, then you see Joe Milton go down and get hurt. I think the Florida game was one of Hooker's first appearances of the year and he's really played well since then on. I would say those two if you just want to point to the biggest keys and put it on two people. Heupel and Hooker definitely, just what they've done here offensively has revolutionized Tennessee as a program.
As far as their cap for this season, I would say like nine wins. In my mind that's the most they're gonna get. Probably, realistically, maybe eight is better. But I would say no more than nine. They're not a double-digit win team yet. They're not there. There were four games going into the season I thought would be the deciding factor between how far Tennessee goes. They were: Pitt, Florida, Louisiana State on the road which will be their next game and then later this season when the Vols host Kentucky. Those four would decide if the Volunteers matched last year with seven wins or improved on that.
Tennessee put down Pitt on the road. Now, Florida, again you look at the numbers and Tennessee if favored, but it's still the Gators. In that rivalry anything can happen. LSU doesn't look as good as maybe we thought at the beginning of the year. Kentucky looks a lot better than everybody thought. So those four games, three of which still have to be played, are kind of the deciders for Tennessee in my mind. I think nine wins is probably their ceiling. They're definitely going to lose Alabama and Georgia.
Last thing for me, top-25 matchup, big atmosphere, College Gameday, 3:30 on CBS. Who takes the game Saturday and what's the final score?
Lane: I hate to be a homer but I think I'll take Tennessee. I've seen a lot of multiple touchdowns score wins. I don't know if it's necessarily going to be a huge blowout. Florida always plays Tennessee really well; they've always dominated them. I'll say 38-24, so a 14 point win. I don't think it gets any more than that. Realistically, it will be a 10 point game, right in that two score range. I think it'll be pretty close, but I have Tennessee.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.