Facing Florida was already going to be a difficult task for Tennessee.
Doing so without a key defensive starter and another who will play despite an injury that requires surgery makes the job even tougher for the 13th-ranked Volunteers (2-0), who renew their rivalry with the No. 7 Gators (2-0) in the SEC opener for both teams on Saturday in Knoxville.
The winner of this game more often than not has gone on to represent the East division in the SEC championship game, and with Florida’s offense working on all cylinders following a 42-0 win over Central Florida last Saturday, Tennessee will have to hope a replacement for cornerback Inky Johnson can step in and perform.
The Vols’ defense looked shaky in a 31-30 victory over Air Force last Saturday. The Falcons had a chance to win the game after scoring a touchdown with 1:35 to go, but went for two points instead of kicking a game-tying extra point.
The Gators threw for 433 yards and finished with 637 yards of total offense in their rout of the Golden Knights. It was Florida’s best offensive performance since gaining 695 yards in a 56-23 win over Maryland in the 2002 Orange Bowl.
Johnson is out for the season was carted off the field after a collision with Air Force’s Justin Handley in which Handley’s helmet hit Johnson’s right shoulder under his chin as his head was turned. He had surgery Sunday to repair blood vessels and more is required to repair nerve damage.
Defensive tackle Justin Harrell ruptured his left biceps tendon and was expected to miss the rest of the season. Coach Phillip Fulmer, though, said the senior would play his final game before undergoing surgery.
“I don’t know whether he’ll get five snaps or 50 snaps, but he’s going to be able to play,” Fulmer said Wednesday. “And this is a one-game deal. He has to have the surgery because if it goes longer than a couple of weeks, the muscle starts to atrophy.”
The Falcons gained 408 yards—281 rushing—against Tennessee’s defense, an eye-opening performance after the Volunteers controlled then-No. 9 California in a season-opening 35-18 victory.
“It’s probably good that we’ve played a good tough close football game. Cal was a good team. Air Force I think they’ll have something to do with who wins that league there if they can stay healthy,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Tennessee may want to rely on its offense against Florida. Quarterback Erik Ainge leads the nation in passing efficiency (226.6) while receiver Robert Meachem is second in the country with 148.5 receiving yards per game.
Because of the one-sided nature of last week’s victory, the Gators were able to get a head start on Saturday’s game. Florida experimented with a no-huddle offense and played the entire contest with a silent count on offense to prepare for the noise it’ll face in Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee’s home stadium seats 104,079 fans, the third-largest venue in the nation.
“When you’re dealing with young offensive linemen, that’s critical that we got that working,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “All practice starting last Monday, we didn’t use a snap count. That’s a pain in the rear end. That disrupts the flow of practice because now your quarterback’s not barking out signals and you lose your rhythm a little bit.
“But I’m glad we had a whole week to work on that and (get) some game reps.”
After last season’s 16-7 win at home, Meyer can become only the second coach in Florida history to win his first two games against Tennessee, joining Galen Hall, who beat the Vols in 1984 and 1985.
The Gators are also trying to improve on the road. All three of their losses last season came away from Gainesville and Florida has tough road games at No. 3 Auburn and No. 9 Florida State later in the season.
Former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz gave some advice to Meyer about playing on the road.
“The best advice he gave me is the best teams he had were confident and tough,” Meyer said. “We were not a confident and tough team a year ago. We were a team that when we got ahead of you, watch out. But when we were behind, we did not dig ourselves out of a hole very well.”
Florida controlled the rivalry with Tennessee in the 1990s, going 7-3, but the teams have split their six meetings since 2000.
The Vols lead the all-time series 19-16.