I’m ready to get right back in to the analysis of what will undoubtedly be the game of the weekend when the toothless legions from Rocky Top coming calling on Urban for his first ever SEC contest. Think about that for a second…how many high profile new head coaches have kicked off their conference coaching careers with a top ten foe who also happens to be your new school’s most hated rival? I don’t have the numbers in front of me but I’m going to say not very many, certainly not in recent times. That’s the way of the world at the University of Florida. Now onto the matchups:
UF O-Line vs. UT D-Line: The Florida Offensive line has been a weakness for the last three years, dating back to the final year of the Steve Spurrier regime. Unlike many of the problems in Gainesville these last three years, this actually wasn’t all Ron Zook’s fault. Could he and his offensive line coach have done a better job with what they were left? Certainly. Was the cupboard left somewhat bare for him in the trenches? Absolutely. The Gators finally have an O-Line that could be described as something more than competent. They return four starters and new right guard Tavares Washington has loads of (yet unrealized) potential. This is a veteran group with a couple of future pros in Center Mike Degory and Tackle Randy Hand. The biggest challenge for this group has been mastering the new blocking schemes of the Urban Meyer spread offense. They looked a little shaky in the season debut but really turned it on to the tune of 251 yards rushing last week. I know it was against La. Tech but any improvement is a positive sign going into this weekend. As for the Vols, they boast a dominating presence at D-Tackle in Senior Jesse Mahelona. The former JUCO All-American was an All-SEC pick last year and should see a steady stream of double teams come Saturday evening. The rest of Tennessee’s D-Line is experienced and extremely capable of being all conference type players as well (especially Parlys Harelson). This may be the most even matchup of the evening and could go a very long way in determining the winner on Saturday night. I think the much improved UF Line will do a good job against Tennessee’s dominating front four but will still struggle at times with the newly implemented blocking schemes.
UF Running Backs vs. UT Linebackers: The Vols have a good history of stellar linebacker play. A number of them have moved onto to the NFL as early round picks over the years and this year’s crop should prove to be no different. They lost their big play guy from last year, 2nd Rd. pick Kevin Burnett, who now plays for Bill Parcells in Dallas. Ironically, he wouldn’t have even been the best Tennessee LB if Kevin Simon hadn’t gone down with a torn ACL during last year’s game against Florida. Simon is back and has played to rave reviews throughout the spring and fall. The key to Florida’s rushing attack will be to identify Simon when he lines up and get a body on him. He is their playmaker among the LBs and must be accounted for. The status of Florida’s running game is far less certain as the Gators have used a combination of four different backs through the season’s first two games. The guy who must step up on Saturday is DeShawn Wynn. He clearly has the most overall ability of the group and is a redshirt junior, so he’s experienced some big time games already in his career. After being suspended for the season opener, he responded with 121 yards rushing last week and looked to be running more aggressively between the tackles than many observers have seen since his freshman season. He’s been in and out of Meyer’s doghouse throughout the spring, summer, and fall due to a combination of poor work ethic, injuries, and questionable off the field decisions. He’s made his way back into the starting lineup and it’s his year to finally make good on the expectations that have followed him since his breakout game against Miami as a freshman. If you’re looking for one guy who’s the key for Florida’s offensive success, you’d be hard pressed to find some one more integral to that success than Mr. Wynn. Also, keep your eyes out for freshman (RS) Markus Manson who has the best breakaway speed of any of Florida’s backs and has been making a very strong push for playing time over the last three weeks.
UF Wide Receivers vs. UT Secondary: The Tennessee seconday could best be described as a work in progress. Second Team All-American Safety Jason Allen has been moved back to corner this year where he played as a freshman two years ago. Allen is a big corner at 6’2” but it remains to be seen if he can consistently keep up with Florida’s speedy wideouts on the outside. Just yesterday, the Vols moved their other corner, sophomore Jonathan Hefney, to free safety in order to sure up the back end of their defensive backfield which has struggled with recognition in practice throughout the fall. Furthermore, freshman (and former Florida commit) Dee Morley saw extensive action at strong safety against UAB and though he has still not been inserted into the starting lineup, he figures to see as much (or more) playing time on Saturday night as Meyer and the Gators will routinely throw out four and five wide receiver sets. While the Vols have some holes in their secondary, the Gators strength on offense is undoubtedly the wide receivers. Chad Jackson is a future first round pick in the making who has improved by leaps and bounds over last year. Look for him to be matched up against Allen on a regular basis come Saturday. The talent doesn’t stop there, not by a longshot. Andre Caldwell has struggled with expectations in his first two years but came on extremely strong in the fall and has the look of a receiver who is ready to become a big time playmaker. There is a precedent here, Andre’s brother Reche (San Diego Chargers) was a bit of an enigma in his first two years before the light came on during his junior year. Finally, the Gators third and fourth receivers (Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius) are as talented as many teams’ starters. Cornelius is the fastest player on UF’s offense and does a great job of creating yards after the catch. Of course, we all remember that last year’s goat was Dallas Baker after he was penalized for slapping a UT defender late in the fourth quarter. Baker has made maybe the most dramatic improvement of any player since Meyer’s arrival and is going to be looked upon to use his large frame (6’4”, 220) to make some big plays in the red zone this year. After a third straight starring role in the spring game for Baker, the time has come for him to do it on the big stage. There’s certainly no bigger stage than the one he’ll be playing on Saturday evening.
I’ll return later in the day to discuss the Special Teams units and to give my pick for Saturday night’s winner.