It has been 11 years since the University of Tennessee has defeated the University of Florida in football. Ever since James Wilhoit’s 50 yard game winning field goal in 2004, the Volunteers have come up short every single time. There have been some close matches, including one point games in 2006 and 2014, but for the most part Florida has controlled the series in recent years.
If there was ever a time for the Vols to beat Florida, this is it. Tennessee is on the rise and has what looks to be by far the best team since head coach Butch Jones has been here. Florida is in a state of rebuilding, as new head coach Jim McElwain is trying to fix what Will Muschamp couldn’t. McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, is an offensive minded coach who has done a lot of work to get this offense back on track. Since many Tennessee fans may not be familiar with what McElwain is doing with the Gators’ offense, this post will examine in-depth what the Vols can expect to see on Saturday and how they might attack Florida’s offense.
FORMATIONS AND PERSONNEL
Florida likes to operate in the shotgun or pistol. The Gators will typically line up in 11 (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) personnel, but also like a 12 (1 back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers) personnel look with the second tight end lined up as an H-Back. Even in one tight end sets, the Gators will often align their tight end in the backfield as a wing/H-Back. Formation wise, Florida will look like just about any other spread offense. What sets them apart from most is the constant use of two tight end sets.
Tennessee will counter this with their regular 4-2-5 nickel package that they have predominantly used for the past three games. The Gators’ 2 tight end sets will force the Vols to respond with their 4-3 package. Tennessee has yet to use the 4-3 much this season because their opponents so far have used spread formations. Florida will use more “pro” 2 tight end sets than any team the Vols have seen yet.
This means that a key player for the Vols will be freshman Sam linebacker Austin Smith. With Curt Maggitt out, Smith will be forced into the first real action of his career when Tennessee goes to the 4-3. Smith had a good camp and is an impressive athlete, but has next to no college experience. How he holds up versus the Gators’ tight ends will be interesting to watch.
WHEN FLORIDA RUNS
Florida wants the run the football first and foremost. Their offense will look familiar to Vol fans, as it resembles the scheme Tennessee ran under Jones when Justin Worley was the quarterback. The Gators base out of inside and outside zone, which we have looked at extensively in the past. I’d recommend checking out this post for more details about the zone running game. Inside zone is the Gators’ scheme of choice. The Gators want to establish double teams at the point of attack and get their running backs moving downhill. When it works well, it looks like this.
Florida also uses a power play. The scheme calls for the playside offensive linemen to block down, and the Gators will pull the backside guard through to the linebacker and have their tight end/H-Back kick out the playside end.
Power is a very good compliment to inside zone. Inside zone is always run opposite where the back lines up. Power is run to the same side as the back lines up. So when defenders begin to flow away from the back to attack the inside zone, the Gators will call the power. This has probably been their most successful run play this season.
While the Gators want to run the ball, they’ve not been very successful doing so. Starting running back Kelvin Taylor only averaged 3.1 yards per carry against ECU and Kentucky. As you would expect, Taylor and Florida are not very explosive in the running game. The Gators have yet to see a back carry the ball further than 18 yards on a given play this season. This would appear to be a matchup in which Tennessee can control. The Vols front should easily be able to handle the Gators underwhelming run attack.
While the Vols have noted problems with their offensive line, Florida is hardly any better. They have struggled to open up lanes in the running game. Taylor has not done much as a runner, and a large reason for that are plays like these where he is met in the backfield by defenders.
The Vols should feel pretty comfortable about playing base defense versus the Gators’ run game. Tennessee’s defensive linemen should be able to win at the line of scrimmage and keep Taylor and company from getting going.
Derek Barnett, LaTroy Lewis, and Corey Vereen form one of the best groups of run stopping ends in the nation. All three guys are very fundamentally sound. Tennessee has seen vast improvement from starting tackles Kendal Vickers and Owen Williams, while freshmen Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie have flashed talent. Former starter Danny O’Brien will also make his return from suspension. The Vols are stocked with talent up front and I give their defensive line the advantage over the Gators offensive line.
WHEN FLORIDA PASSES
In the passing game, Florida has an astounding tendency that the Vols should exploit. When quarterback Will Grier is in the game and the Gators call for a dropback pass play, Grier throws the ball into the boundary the vast majority of the time. He only threw downfield to the field side once in the Gators last two games. By my count, he threw downfield into the boundary over 15 times. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a college quarterback be so limited to one side of the field before.
Grier’s arm strength is less than ideal and he really struggles on passes were he has to throw all the way across the field or on deep, deep passes. Even on screen passes where the receiver is out to the field, the ball is often low. Grier is just as likely to one-hop a pass to the field as he is to complete it.
In Florida’s last two games , Grier only threw downfield into the boundary once, and the ball was well underthrown. (skip to 28:38)
Grier has yet to complete a downfield pass into the field from a drop back pass!
By throwing into the boundary so much, Florida gives Tennessee a game plan advantage. Vols cornerback Cameron Sutton is one of the best in the nation. Tennessee would be wise to align him to the boundary and corner Emmanuel Moseley to the field for this matchup. Sutton playing in the boundary gives Florida a tough, tough choice. Throw right at one of the nation’s best defensive backs with a mediocre quarterback and receiver unit, or do something that your quarterback has been very, very uncomfortable doing by attacking the field side.
Grier’s lack of arm strength shows up in Florida’s lack of explosive plays. Grier has yet to complete a pass longer than 34 yards on the season, and averages a mere 7.75 yards per attempt (a number that has decreased each week of the season).
Overall, Grier has done some good things, but is very limited. His stats are a bit deceiving as well. Since going 16/18 versus New Mexico State, a struggling team, Grier has only completed 59% of his passes. Against ECU and Florida he made some poor reads downfield and was inconsistent. The Vols should have multiple chances for interceptions if Grier doesn’t improve his decision-making. He was eventually pulled from the ECU game.
To give Grier a better chance, the Gators like to use roll outs and bootleg plays to get him on the edge where the throws are shorter than from the pocket.
Florida has two receivers who should concern the Vols. DeMarcus Robinson is the Gators’ best wide receiver. He’s a solid threat and is Grier’s go-to target. Florida likes to isolate him in red zone situations to get their best receiver the ball.
The other key threat is tight end DeAndre Goolsby. The 6’4 243 lb. athlete lines up in a lot of different places and leads the Gators in receiving yards. Goolsby is actually listed as the third tight end on the depth chart. He is a specialty receiver who struggles when asked to block. The Vols should have alarm bells going off when he comes in the game, because it will likely be because they want to throw downfield to him.
One key play to watch for Tennessee’s defenders is the post/wheel concept. The Gators like to have the outside receiver to the boundary run a deep post route while their slot receiver, tight end, or running back runs to the flat before “wheeling” up the sideline. The design of the play aims to draw the outside defender inside with the post to open up the wheel. This play led to the Gators biggest gains versus ECU, as seen on the first two clips below. The third clip shows a poor read by Grier. If he threw the wheel, Florida would’ve scored.
While Grier is not a runner, he has shown some mobility and can hurt a defense on broken plays. The Gators don’t do any read option or designed quarterback runs for Grier, but he isn’t afraid to make a play with his legs. Against Kentucky he was the team’s leading rusher, solely on scramble plays.
If the Gators go to Treon Harris, their other quarterback, then that is a different story. Vol fans should be plenty familiar with Harris, who led the Gators from behind to beat Tennessee last season. Harris is an athletic runner. Grier played the whole game last week against Kentucky, but McElwain has indicated that Harris may get some looks versus the Vols.
THE VOLS’ RESPONSE
Overall, the Volunteers should have a significant advantage when the Gators have the ball. Taylor and the run game have yet to get anything going this year, while Tennessee boasts a solid rotation of guys on the defensive line and a very athletic linebacker unit.
When Florida tries to pass, the Volunteers should again have the advantage. Sutton is one of the best corners in the nation and will hopefully be put in position to take away the boundary from Florida. Ever since returning to the field after a health issue, Todd Kelly Jr. has been a ball hawk and is a rising star at safety. Florida has yet to prove they can threaten a talented opponent through the air. Grier has a lot of issues, headlined by his lack of arm strength.
My first thought would be play some two high safety coverages and dare Florida to run. The Gators do not scare me at all on the ground, and I like Tennessee’s talent in the front seven. The Vols front can stop the Gators run. Grier is very inconsistent, but he has made some plays and the passing game is more of a concern to me than the run.
So what is my prediction for the game? Based on the film I have looked at, I really struggle to see how Florida gets much going on offense. Tennessee’s defense should be able to shut down this very limited Gator attack. McElwain will see this offense improve, but they don’t have the talent he needs yet.
Florida has talent on defense, but in the end I think the Vols’ backfield trio of Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara will make enough plays to get Tennessee enough points to win. The Vols also have the special teams advantage. Tennessee breaks their losing streak to the Gators and wins in a low-scoring game, 24-13.