Tennessee has not looked very good early this season, and Florida could make its archrival look a lot worse.
Facing their first real test to show they can repeat as national champions, the fifth-ranked Gators go into this annual SEC showdown Saturday hoping to keep their offense in high gear against a shaky Volunteers defense.
Though No. 22 Tennessee (1-1, 0-0) is off to an unimpressive start, this is by far the biggest challenge Florida (2-0, 0-0) has had. The Gators have totaled 108 points and 1,010 yards of offense in home wins over Western Kentucky and Troy.
“It is going to be two sledgehammers taking a swing at each other on the third Saturday at Florida, which is a good deal,” said Urban Meyer, looking to become the first Gators coach to win his first three games against Tennessee.
Florida won 16-7 in 2005 at Gainesville, and 21-20 last year in Knoxville for its 15th win in the past 21 meetings. Gators quarterback Jeff Tebow had seven carries for 29 yards without attempting a pass in the most recent matchup, but has been impressive both on the ground and through the air in his first year as the starter.
Tebow is second nationally in passer rating at 228.2, completing 73.8 percent of his throws for 536 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. He’s also run for 131 yards and three scores while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
“I’m really excited about it,” the sophomore said of starting against Tennessee for the first time. “It is my first big start, my first conference game. Having some experience by playing in last year’s game gives me some confidence going into it.”
Tennessee’s defense may have regained some confidence with its second-half performance last Saturday. The Vols surrendered 61 points through the first six quarters of the season before holding Southern Mississippi to a field goal in the second half of a 39-19 win.
The Vols, who opened with a 45-31 loss at then-No. 12 California, forced a safety and got their first sack of the year in the fourth quarter last week.
“The coaches and players did a good job of improving from the first game to the second game, and we hope that momentum will continue against Florida,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Florida’s offense has scored on all 14 trips inside the red zone - 13 were touchdowns - but will be missing a key contributor this week.
Wideout Andre Caldwell, the team’s second-leading receiver last season, sprained his MCL in Florida’s 59-31 win over Troy last Saturday and could be out at least two weeks. The senior captain is one of the Gators’ best deep threats, averaging 27.8 yards per catch this year.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” Tebow said. “He’s a great player, a great leader for us and for our receiving corps. Everybody looks up to him. But a great thing about being at the University of Florida is you have guys that can step up and make plays.”
One of them is tight end Cornelius Ingram, who has a team-high eight catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He’s one of five Gators with at least four receptions.
That receiving corps goes against a Vols defense missing starting cornerback Antonio Gaines, who tore his ACL last Saturday and is out for the season. That likely means senior Jarod Parish will start at corner while freshman Eric Berry moves to safety.
“I have great respect for their personnel,” Meyer said. “They are definitely a top-five personnel group, there is no question.”
One of the players which must concern Meyer is Arian Foster, the Tennessee junior tailback who has rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries.
Florida’s defense, though, limited the Vols to minus-11 rushing yards and 220 total yards in last year’s matchup. Erik Ainge’s second interception ended Tennessee’s last chance to score and he finished 17-of-32 for 183 yards without a touchdown.
Ainge has been a bright spot for the Vols this year, though, completing 55 of 83 passes for 547 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.
“Now he is running our no-huddle offense real well and getting the ball to receivers quickly,” Fulmer said of his senior quarterback.
The task at hand for Fulmer’s squad is formidable.
Florida is going for a 10th straight victory, which would be its longest winning streak since 1996, and has won 17 in a row at home. Meyer is 6-0 in conference openers and has never lost a game at The Swamp.
“We’re concerned with the speed and talent they have everywhere,” Fulmer said. “It will be our 11 and their 11, and we will see how we match up. They spread the ball around on offense, and they are very aggressive defensively. We’ve been tested in two tough football games, and it should make us a better team.”