The opening kickoff: No. 20 Gators at No. 11 Tennessee

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Knoxville, Tenn. — Checkered flags are everywhere in the city. The ESPN “College GameDay” set is built on The Hill. The Market Square buzzed Friday night with fans talking about the big game.

Yes, they can’t wait to see Saturday’s sold-out showdown at Neyland Stadium between the No. 20-ranked Gators (2-1, 0-1) and the No. 11 Vols (3-0, 0-0) here on RockyTop.

“There’s so much history and tradition behind this game,” the Gators head coach said. Billy Napier said. “I think our players and staff, anyone familiar with college football, understands that Florida-Tennessee has always been an important game.”

 

The Gators, after three straight Saturdays at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, will be the enemy on Saturday afternoon. They face a Tennessee team that is climbing in the polls and is among the favorites with 10.5 points.

Meanwhile, the story is clearly on Florida’s side. The Gators have won 16 of the last 17 against Tennessee, including five in a row.

Still, Tennessee fans are certain this is the year their beloved Big Orange will turn the tide of a once fierce rivalry defined by 18 straight games in which the two were seeded from 1990-2007.

The Gators are ready to face the hostile environment.

“It’s a big game for everyone,” said the Gators defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson said. “I can’t make the moment too big. They have to come and play us like we have to come and play them. It’s an away game so obviously it won’t be – the crowd, the momentum, everything That won’t be in our favour, but we have to do it in our favour.”

For more on Saturday’s game between the Gators and the Vols, here The opening kickoff:

 


THREE STORIES

  • The Gators are ranked 20th. Tennessee is No. 11. Yes, this one kind of takes us back to the glory days of the rivalry. ESPN’s “College GameDay” is in Knoxville for the game and the locals are pouring their moonshine for what they’re convinced will be a winning Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium for the Vols. Of course, the Gators have something to say about it and understand the importance of the game for countless reasons. Hey, at least people are talking about a Florida-Tennessee matchup like it used to be.
  • The obvious for the Gators focuses on the quarterback Anthony Richardson, who comes in without a touchdown pass and four interceptions in three games. Richardson struggled to find the rhythm he displayed in the then season-opening upset. 7 Utah. Richardson is trying to rediscover the joy of gaming and spoke this week about having fun and letting the game come to him rather than the other way around. If that happens, the Gators will be a much better team.
  • Alligator Coach Billy Napier was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, his parents went to Tennessee Tech, and he grew up a few hours drive from Knoxville in Chatsworth, Georgia. This is the start of the SEC road from Napier to Florida and it may cause more misery for the voluntary state the way a certain Tennessee head ball coach did when he was in charge of the program. It’s a potential storyline that has Gators fans smiling.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • Since we mentioned Richardson above, let’s turn to the backfield trio of Montrell Johnson Jr., Nay’Quan Wright and Trevor Etienne. The Gators can make Richardson’s job a whole lot easier by hammering the ball in behind a veteran offensive line and rushing offense averaging 212.0 yards per game. Tennessee’s defense is giving up 182.3 rushing yards per game, ninth in the SEC. Run, Gators, run.
  • Quarterback Flights Hendon Hooker is 24 years old and in sixth grade. There’s little he hasn’t seen so far in his career leading Tennessee’s pacey offense that snaps the ball every 20 seconds. Florida’s defensive front must find a way to disrupt Hooker and get him off the pace. The Vols are averaging 52.0 points per game, so slowing down Hooker is imperative for the 10.5-point underdog Gators to exit Neyland Stadium on Saturday with a win.
  • Gators sixth-year senior linebacker Ventell MillerLast week’s absence against USF was noticeable. The Bulls slashed the Gators for 286 rushing yards. Miller is a game-time decision according to Napier, so all eyes will be on the No. 51 in pre-game warm-ups. If Miller plays, the Gators have their defensive quarterback and stick in the middle.

FIVE FIGURES

41 – Appearances on “College GameDay” for Gators; UF is 26-15 in those games.
553.7- Average yards per game for Tennessee’s offense, which leads the SEC.
353.0 – Average yards per game for Florida’s offense, which ranks 12th in the SEC.
seven – Consecutive games against Tennessee that Florida scored more than 26 points. UF is 6-1 and averaging 33.1 points over that span.
37/3 – Touchdown to interception ratio for Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker since joining the Vols last season.


INJURY REPORT

GATORS — OUTSIDE:OL Michael Tarquin (lower body), LS Marco Ortiz (upper body), AND Arlis Boardingham (upper body), QB Jack Miller III (inch), OL David Conner (upper body); DOUBTFUL — KG Ventell Miller (lower body); LIKELY – BC Jaydon Hill (knee). TENNESSEE—OUT: RB Len’Net Whitehead (upper body, out for the season), LB William Mohan (suspended), WR Jimmy Holloway (suspended, first half only); QUESTIONABLE: WR Cedric Tillman (lower body); TE Miles Campbell (undisclosed); LIKELY – RB Jabari Small (upper body), CB Dee Williams (undisclosed), CB Warren Burrell (undisclosed).


NOTES FOLDER

  • The Gators are visiting Tennessee for the 27th time in program history. UF is 31-20 against the Vols, including a 14-12 advantage in Knoxville.
  • Florida has won 16 of 17 previous meetings against Tennessee and outscored the Vols by an average of 13.5 points per game over that span.
  • Both schools were ranked when they played each year from 1990 to 2007. This is the fourth time both have been ranked since 2008 (2012, ’16, ’17, ’22).
  • Gators defensive co-coordinator Sean Spencer and defensive coordinator Vols Tim Banks know each other very well. They worked together at Penn State from 2016 to 2019.
  • Former Gators OL Gerald Minceywho transferred to Tennessee after last season, started the first three games at left tackle for Vols.
  • The Gators rank fifth among FBS programs with an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
  • Alligators RB Montrell Johnson Jr. (second, 9.6) and Trevor Etienne (third, 7.5) are among the SEC’s individual leaders in yards per carry.
  • Fifth Year Senior Security Trey Dean III has a team record 30 tackles, second in the SEC behind Vanderbilt Anfernee Orji (39).
  • Tennessee’s defense has forced six turnovers in three games and UT is plus-three in turnover margin.
  • Quarterback Flights Hendon Hooker threw no interceptions in 15 straight games, the second-longest streak in school history behind Heath Shuler (18).

THEY SAID IT

  • “He’s our number 2, and I would say Jalen has done a great job of making good decisions, he’s been very precise and every week he understands our system better. I’ve been happy with Jalen and the progress he’s made the low.” — Gators Coach Billy Napier on backup quarterback Jalen Kitna
  • “I think he was a guy who was relaxed, and there was really no pressure, they weren’t expected to win. They were almost the underdogs at home and he came out and played. And then the last two weeks you’ve seen a guy who now – as a young player – should lead the team.” — Former Gators head coach Dan Mullen on the Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson
  • “They have good players. They are big, strong, physical up front. You have to be able to deal with their unbalanced sets. Communicate. Be on the sidelines. Because of the athletes who have the ball in their hands, you have to do a great job of tackling. They’re the running backs, but they’re also the quarterbacks.—Tennessee coach Josh Heupel on what makes UF’s offense dangerous
  • “It’s really exciting, something I looked forward to doing as a kid, exciting to take my first steps away, in a harsh environment. I feel like it’s going to be a test for me, but I feel like I’m ready for this.” — Gators defensive lineman Desmond Watson for getting his first start in Tennessee
  • “I just go into meditation mode and put on my gospel playlist. I really listen to a lot of slow jams and relax. I kind of go into the locker room and mop everyone up, just to make sure I’m ready to roll.” – Quarterback Flights Hendon Hooker on his pre-game routine for big games

THEY WRITTEN IT


LOWER RESULT

The Gators have dominated this rivalry so much over the past two decades that when the Volunteers are heavy favorites, it’s like we’re hanging out in the Upside Down with those folks in “Stranger Things.” It’s easy to see why Flights are the sexy choice in this one. They are undefeated and sophomore coach Josh Heupel dream big Rocky Top. Meanwhile, the Gators have struggled for the past two weeks and now must hit the road and play in front of more than 100,000 rabid Tennessee fans who consider a win over Florida their Super Bowl. Sorry, I’m not buying it. I could be totally wrong and look forward to emails afterwards if I am, but I think the Gators will maintain their dominance. That’s what Florida is doing against Tennessee.

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