RACE FOR THE EAST: Florida Gators
“Race for the East” is a series of articles previewing Tennessee Volunteer football’s matchups against each SEC East team on the 2016 schedule. On September 24th, the Vols take on bitter rival Florida at Neyland Stadium.
Saturday, September 26th, 2015.
With Tennessee down 27–28 and just three seconds remaining on the game clock, sophomore Volunteer placekicker Aaron Medley lines up for a game-winning 55-yard field goal. The snap is good, hold is solid. The kick is up. It looks from most vantage points that it will just slip into the uprights and give the Volunteers the win. But just as the ball reaches the goalpost, it tails outside on the right. The Florida faithful erupt with glee. Tennessee would have to wait another year for a chance to finally regain dominance against the Gators.
This is one of several painful memories of close losses during the 2015 season, and most Vol fans would probably say that it was the most stomach-churning of the bunch. But the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers will host the Gators at home in Neyland Stadium, and have a very good shot at ending the streak and coming out on top in this year’s edition of the rivalry.
The passing game was a liability for Tennessee in the 2015 matchup. Josh Dobbs threw for just 83 yards on 10/17 passing with no touchdowns and no interceptions. While the zero-turnover stat is definitely a plus, especially considering the fact that Gator cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was one of the best in the country, Dobbs will have to display a better command of the aerial attack to defeat the Gators. That shouldn’t be much of a problem, however, as Hargreaves is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and Dobbs has worked diligently throughout the offseason on perfecting his throwing accuracy and field vision.
While Tennessee’s passing game wasn’t effective during the 2015 game, the rushing attack was. Dobbs led the team with 136 yards on 18 carries, and Jalen Hurd followed with 102 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns. Alvin Kamara logged 5 rushes for 16 yards. Tennessee’s three-headed monster of Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara should be operating at full force by the Florida contest, and sophomore John Kelly could make an impact if Hurd or Kamara leave the game with an injury.
The Tennessee secondary struggled to contain Florida quarterback Will Grier last year. Grier passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns on 23 completions. The Vols were able to intercept one of Grier’s passes, but the freshman was altogether effective against the Volunteer defense. But Grier is no longer on the team, having transferred to West Virginia during the offseason, and a much-improved Vol secondary should be licking their chops with an inexperienced Florida signal-caller.
Tennessee allowed Florida tailback to rush for 102 yards on 19 carries last season, but that was the extent of the damage. Brandon Powell ran for 7 yards on one carry, and Grier recorded no yards rushing. With an improved defensive line and a hunger for victory, the Vols should be able to handle any Gator rushing threat this year.
With Medley’s missed field goal still weighing on Volunteer fans’ minds, special teams should be a key factor to look at for the 2016 matchup. But the kick was from 55 yards out, a very tough kick for most NFL kickers, and Medley had a solid game otherwise, converting two field goals and three extra points. True, Medley did struggle throughout last season, but he should be ready to prove himself this year against a Florida squad that surely saw his miss as one of the highlights of their season.
Tennessee punter Trevor Daniel had a spectacular game against 2015 Florida. Despite not downing any punts inside the 20, he averaged 51.3 yards on six punts. Besides returners Evan Berry and Cam Sutton, Daniel is Tennessee’s most dangerous special teams weapon, and should continue to see success against the Gators this year.
Team 120 is thirsting for a chance to knock off Florida, and will have the tools to so do this year. If Tennessee can improve on their passing attack and have the same success running the ball, the 2016 Volunteers will definitely compete with the Gators to the end of regulation, and have a very good chance at turning the rivalry back in their favor.