This is simultaneously my favorite and most hated week of each Gator Football season. It's Tennessee week. There is no team that I despise with the verocity of the University of Tennessee. Sure, I can't stand Florida State and there senile old coach and Georgia annoys me on a fairly regualr basis, even Miami's fans routinely piss me off. Yet, no school combines all of these factors the way the Volunteers do. Between their crooked, morbidly obese coach, their obnoxious inbred fans and of course "good ole' Rocky Top", I can't think of one group of people that I can't stand more than those donkeys who parade around clad in that ridiculous creamsicle orange. I hope that I've made it clear how much disdain I have for all things related to the University of Tennessee (Go straight to hell Chamique Holdsclaw!!). If I haven't, feel free to give me a call and I'll give you the unabridged version of "All the things I despise about the Tennessee Volunteers." With all of that being said, there still isn't a team on Florida's schedule that can strike fear in my heart the way Fat Phil and his troops do. They've been responsible for some of the more heartbreaking losses in recent Gator history (OT 1998, December 2001 and last year's debacle). Some would even say that they've had the Gators' number recently as they've taken three of the last four games including the last two games played at the Swamp, which is exaclty where Saturday night's matchup is taking place. These two teams couldn't be more equally matched in the eyes of the AP voters so I'll take a deeper look into the battles which will determine Saturday evening's victor. This is a two parter so today I'll look at the QBs on both sides as well as the matchups between the rest of Tennessee's offense and the revamped Gator D.
QBs: Florida has an edge here as Tennessee still isn't quite sure who will be their starter for the 2005 season. Sophomore Erik Ainge was named starter after Fall practices and celebrated that by going out and shitting the bed against UAB. Shortly thereafter, Rick Clausen took over and led Tennesee to a victory in the season opener. Since Tennessee had a bye last week, we're still not certain who'll get the majority of the snaps on Saturday. I'll go with Clausen as the guy who plays in the second half due to his experience and overall heady (when compared to Ainge) play. Whoever it is, they aren't as competent a QB as Chris Leak. Now in his 3rd year as the starter in Gainesville, Leak has emerged as a leader for Urban Meyer's offense. We all know that Leak can throw the ball with the best of them. What we don't know is how effective he'll be running Meyer's spread option offense against the best D-Line in the SEC. I think that Leak will be forced to make some plays with his legs to keep Tennessee's defense honest in the early going. If he can do this, it should open up some holes for DeShawn Wynn and the rest of Florida's backs to make a big difference. Leak will be judged on one question: Can he beat the Vols (something he's never done)? He's certainly good enough this year. We'll see if he gets any help from his mates.
UT O-Line vs. UF D-Line: Phil Fulmer says that this could be the best offensive line that he's ever had at Tennessee. That is pretty scary when you think about some of the lines that have played in Knoxville over the years. Of course, I've heard this discourse from Fat Phil before with mixed results. This year though I am inclined to believe him, as the Vols are returning four of five starters from a line that was pretty stout at the end of last year. On the other side of the ball, the Gators are returning all the starters from last year's defensive line though D-End Joe Cohen has been demoted. Another change is that former tackle Ray McDonald has been moved to the end this year. Ray was an undersized tackle to begin with and it looks as if the move to end is the perfect change for a quick guy who always seemed to wear down late in games. Replacing him on the inside is Steven Harris, a former end who continued to bulk up throughout his time in Gainesville and has now grown into a legitimate SEC D-Tackle. In my opinion, this is the best defensive line that Florida has had in the last five years, far more capable of putting pressure on the passer adn stopping the run than any of it's recent predecessors. Even with it's improvements I still have to give the edge to the Vols.
UT Running Backs vs. UF Linebackers:
Tennessee has one running back who will see the bulk of the playing time, Gerald Riggs, Jr. The former Redskin's son is a big back with breakaway speed whom many are hyping as a darkhorse for the Heisman. While he has all the physical tools and put up over 1,000 yards rushing last year, I have never been completely sold on his ability to be a game changer. I believe that he's not as good as Florida's back from last year (Ciatrick Fason) and there is no debating that he's done little to distinguish himself on the biggest of stages. Could this be his breakout game? Many are targeting the thin LB corps of Florida as his victims, but I am not one of them. In sophomore Brandon Siler, the Gators have the best MLB in the SEC. An absolute terror who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Even if All-SEC LB Channing Crowder had stayed in school, Siler would be manning the middle this year due to his natural instincts and speed. In addition to Siler, the Gators have a player of their own who is due for his breakout game...OLB Earl Everett. Urban Meyer has repeatedly called him his "best football player" throughout the spring and fall practices and there is no doubting that he has all the tools neccessary to be just that. Recruited as a safety, Everett has bulked up to legit LB size without losing any of his speed. Look for Everett to be used in a number of different ways throughout Saturday's game as Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison looks to take advantage of the mismatches that Everett creates.
UT Wide Receivers vs. UF Secondary: Many Vol fans are claiming to have the best WR corps in the SEC. I do not subscribe to that opinion, though I will say that they boast the deepest group of wideouts. The Vols have 5 receivers who caught more than 20 balls last year, though none of them amassed more than 400 yards or four TDs throughout the season. I couldn't name but one of them off of the top of my head. Considering the amount of SEC football I watch in a given year, that should tell you about all you need to know about this group of receivers. If this were last year then the Florida secondary would be at a decided disadvantage in this matchup due to the strenght in numbers that Tennessee has. Thankfully, this is not last year. Gone is the worst safety in Florida history, Corey "at least he has nice hair" Bailey. Replacing him is sophomore Kyle Jackson who actually took over for Bailey during the stretch run (beginning against South Carolina) of 2004. More importantly, the Gators boast more legitimate cover guys than they have in nearly a decade. Dee Weeb is the best cover corner in the SEC. Vernell Brown is a midget (5'7" ish) but quick, strong, and extremely tough. Perhaps even more important than any of these guys is the emergence of one time super recruit Reggie Nelson. Rated by many as the best player in the state of Florida his senior year of high school, Nelson originally signed with the Gators in 2001 only to be unable to qualify. After spending two years in JUCO (the first of which he redshirted in order to maintain as much eligibility as possible) Nelson has stepped in as the Gator's nickel back this year. This is a guy who was a first team JUCO All-American at Safety last year and also happens to run a 4.3 40. Did I mention 5 star recruit Avery Atkins? Oh yeah, he's already seeing extensive action as well. To sum up, what once was an achilles heel has become the strength of the Gator defense in a little over 9 months.
Advantage : Florida.
I'll be back tommorrow with analysis of the matchup between Florida's Offense and Tennessee's Defense.