Florida football’s visit from No. 11 Tennessee Saturday night in the Swamp shapes up to be an inflection point in the Gators’ season and a rivalry game that once captivated the college football world.
Coach Billy Napier’s squad (1-1) is a 7.5-point underdog with six straight losses to Top 25 opponents. An upset would provide a confidence surge and dramatically alter expectations for a team picked to finish fifth in the SEC East division.
A loss would continue the Vols’ ascendence in the pecking order under former UCF coach Josh Heupel, a development UF wants to avoid after two decades of dominance against UT.
“It’s a big weekend for Gator Nation,” Napier said.
Weighty questions and pressing concerns face Florida’s coach just three games into his second season in Gainesville.
How badly does Napier need a win?
Florida’s rebuild remains in its nascent stage under Napier. Even so, other programs under second-year coaches — Duke, Washington State, Washington and now Miami —appear to be on faster tracks.
A ‘W’ would help shift the narrative, especially given few expected the Gators to beat the Vols (2-0) entering the season.
Napier also would avoid associating himself with another low point from the past.
— UF’s 6-7 finish in 2022 marked the first losing season for a first-year coach since Charley Pell in 1979.
— The Gators’ 14 points during its past two FBS games — a 30-3 Las Vegas Bowl loss and 24-11 season-opening flop at Utah — are the fewest in a two-game stretch since 1988 under Galen Hall.
— The Vols’ last victory in the Swamp was a 24-10 decision in 2003, during Year 2 of Ron Zook’s doomed tenure at UF.
Times and head coaches have since changed, but Florida’s superiority over Tennessee has been a constant. The Gators have prevailed in 16 of the past 18 meetings.
How dangerous is Vols’ QB Joe Milton III?
The native of Pahokee made a forgettable appearance during Tennessee’s last trip to the Swamp, a 38-14 Florida rout in 2021. Then the Vols’ backup, Milton was 2 of 8 for 54 yards and had a 6-yard run.
After he watched Hendon Hooker thrive in 2022 during his and Josh Heupel’s second season together, Milton has earned his second chance.
Early returns are favorable: he has accounted for 7 touchdowns and 0 turnovers. Milton also faced little resistance against Virginia and had to shake off a slow start against overmatched Austin Peay.
A night game at the Swamp and much-improved Florida defense are sure to test a 23-year-old with rare physical traits yet a history of shaky decision-making — first at Michigan and now in Knoxville.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Milton also is sure to challenge the Gators with his arm and legs.
“Everyone talks about his arm: It’s live,” Mertz marveled.
Milton’s running ability will have the attention of Gators’ first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. A “spy” to shadow the Vols’ signal caller might be the solution a season after UF yielded 112 rushing yards to Hooker.
If Milton gets loose, it could be a long night.
“The quarterback is a freak of nature,” Napier said. “His ability to rush the ball may be even more effective and more willing it than the last guy.”
Speaking of Heupel, how does UF slow down his offense?
UT’s up-tempo attack aims to run a play every 18 seconds to keep defenses guessing and eventually gasping.
The best defense could be a good offense.
The Vols’ racked up 576 yards during last season’s 38-33 win, yet the Gators countered with 594 and ran 87 plays to Tennessee’s 70 as Anthony Richardson played his best game of the season.
Behind Mertz and a run game coming off a 327-yard night against McNeese, Florida will attempt a more methodical game of keep-away.
A season after leading the nation in scoring and yards per game, Heupel must replace Hooker, top receiver Jalin Hyatt, two of his three top rushers and the left side of the offensive line.
The 2023 attack remains plenty dangerous.
“They’re plug-and-play,” Napier said. “They’ve got really good talent there.”
What’s the next step for UF’s much-improved ‘D’?
The Gators have yielded an SEC-low 382 yards a season after allowing an average of 411.
After feasting on undermanned Utah and overmatch McNeese, Armstrong and Co. face their first true test.
The Gators’ talent, depth and execution have improved. Consider UF’s foes are 5 of 23 on third down a season after converting nearly 50%.
The Gators also have just two sacks, have failed to force a takeaway and rely a bevy of young players yet to face Tennessee’s talent or tempo. Veterans such as edge rusher Princely Umanmielen, thus far underwhelming, and cornerback Jason Marshall Jr., yet to record a pass breakup, need to be at their best.