After studying Tennessee's loss to Oklahoma, I came away pretty positive on the Vols. They made me look good for that in their near-upset of Georgia last weekend. After now having looked closely at that game, I think UT only needs to make a couple of small adjustments this week in order to beat Florida for the first time since 2004.
Be even more creative with the running attack.
Aside from two big runs that were outliers, Tennessee gained just 2.88 yards per carry on 25 rushes against the Sooners. The Vols did a little better than that against UGA, which you'd expect given that the Bulldogs' defense isn't as good as OU's is. UT got 20 yards on a double reverse, and Jalen Hurd gained 37 yards combined on a pair of carries against the pathetic prevent defense that UGA employed before halftime that gave up a cheap touchdown. Factor those out, and UT's standard run game got just 91 yards on 28 carries (3.25 YPC). Better than against Oklahoma, but not great.
Still though, Butch Jones has shown increasing creativity in trying to overcome his green offensive line's deficiencies in run blocking. He uses quick screens to the outside as substitute runs. He ran Pig Howard on an end around for eight yards (unfortunately negated by holding) and had Josh Malone get 20 on the double reverse. He even has begun using Hurd on direct snap plays.
Using Hurd as his primary back over the more experienced Marlin Lane is another important adjustment. He is a tougher runner than Lane is, with a much lower percentage of his runs going for no gain or a loss. He doesn't give up high end potential by being tougher either. Lane's longest carry this season is 18 yards, which came against Arkansas State. Hurd had four carries of at least that distance in the Oklahoma and Georgia games together.
Tennessee doesn't have to outrush Florida to win on Saturday. Given the teams' offensive preferences, it's unlikely the Vols will outrush the Gators no matter what happens. For the reasons I'm outlining in the next section, though, a functional run game to free up the pass some will be a necessity. If Jones keeps digging into his bag of tricks and finds a way to effectively run the ball without mashing it up the middle for no more than two yards a pop, his team will be in great shape.
Do more to protect Justin Worley.
I get that Jones' offense is a wide open one that doesn't use a lot of extra guys for pass protection like more traditional offenses do. I understand that when he lines up in a one-back set with a tight end, he'd probably prefer both the tight end and the back to be able to catch a pass.
But look: Tennessee cannot win this game without a healthy Justin Worley.
Nathan Peterman started last year's game against Florida, and it truly, without hyperbole, might have been the worst quarterbacking display I've ever seen on the major conference college level. Peterman is a year older now, and he was nowhere near that bad in his three series in relief of Worley against Georgia. Even so, he was almost completely ineffective. His three drives gained just 50 yards on 19 plays (2.6 yards per play), and one of those plays was that 20-yard double reverse. Outside of that play, he oversaw 30 yards on 18 plays (1.67 YPP), and that's leaving in a 13-yard catch-and-run reception.
I estimate that on plays where he's not pressured, Worley will just flat out miss his target about one out of ten throws. That's going to happen; it's mostly fine. When he is getting pressured, he is significantly worse. It's a bigger drop off, I think, than most quarterbacks.
Tennessee cannot trust its offensive line to keep Worley clean by itself. On five of the seven plays where Oklahoma either sacked or all-but-sacked Worley, the Sooners rushed four or fewer players. On the play where Worley hurt his elbow while being hit by Jordan Jenkins last Saturday, UGA only rushed three against five UT linemen. When Georgia blitzed, it more often than not got a hit on Worley, forced an inaccurate throw, induced a throwaway, or got a combination of a couple of those.
You can be sure that Will Muschamp has been spending a lot of his extra time in preparation for this game diagnosing all the ways that the Volunteers' O-line breaks down under pressure. Jones will probably need to keep at least one guy other than the line to block far more often than he'd prefer. On Pig Howard's huge 31-yard touchdown catch midway in the fourth quarter, Worley barely got the ball off before rushers who beat linemen reached him. The only reason he got it off at all, though, is because Hurd picked up a rusher coming around the blindside who probably would have hit Worley during the throw.
Florida's secondary is pretty iffy this year outside of Vernon Hargreaves III. Tennessee should be able to have plenty of success in the passing game even when only three guys go out on routes. If Jones elects to keep an extra guy or two back to keep Worley upright and not bothered, his offense should score enough points to win.
Trust the secondary.
The best part of Tennessee's defense is easily its linebackers of A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. You should be familiar with Johnson by now, and Reeves-Maybin is not too far off from what I've seen this year.
UT will need them to help a lot with the run game. Georgia largely won the game thanks to its rushing attack with Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel. Florida's lead backs of Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor aren't as good as those two are, but they're definitely capable of rolling up some yards against the Vols' defensive line. Plus, Florida's offensive line will be at full strength for the first time since early in its Eastern Michigan game, as LT D.J. Humphries is back after missing time with an ankle injury.
With even Muschamp declaring that Jeff Driskel needs to play better, it would be something of a surprise to see the Gators do anything but lean on the rushing game. Johnson and Reeves-Maybin will need to give the defensive line a lot of support to deal with that. In order to keep Florida from controlling the game with five-yard rush after five-yard rush, Jones will have to rely on his defensive backs to deal with the pass without much help from the linebackers.
But again, given Driskel's struggles, it shouldn't take much convincing to have Tennessee do just that. Hutson Mason hasn't set the world on fire, but he has been noticeably better than Driskel so far in 2014. Mason had a rough day against UT, getting under six yards per attempt and throwing a pair of picks. The first of those interceptions was a play where freshman Todd Kelly, Jr. perfectly read Mason's eyes and baited him into an easy pick by faking which route he'd be defending. If UT can do that to Mason, it can do it to Driskel for sure.
The line on this game opened with Florida a slight favorite, but the Vols are now favored anywhere from two to three-and-a-half points depending on where you look. With home field advantage generally accepted to be worth about three points with college football betting lines, the bookies are saying these teams are about even with the Neyland Stadium environment being the difference.
That sounds about right to me. The distance between the programs hasn't been smaller than it is this year since UT's last win in 2004, and that even includes last year considering Florida was still relatively healthy at the start of that contest. The Tennessee team that basically was a lost end zone fumble away from beating Georgia a few days ago could certainly beat Florida.
Making a few adjustments like the ones I've outlined could help the Vols tilt the balance more in their favor than the game's line would suggest. There will be something of a psychological barrier to overcome here, with a decade of losses to the Gators providing pressure on Tennessee that wouldn't otherwise be there against, say, South Carolina or Missouri. Two years ago, Neyland was truly rocking for the first time in years in anticipation of the streak coming to an end; the Gators dominated the second half of that one in a 37-20 win.
Perhaps that's one way that the youth throughout the roster will help the Vols. Many of the UT players hitting the field on Saturday weren't even on campus for that 2012 contest. If they can make a few tweaks here and there and remain focused if and when they get a second half lead, a decade of frustration will end this Saturday.