Gators host Volunteers in SEC opener, last East division tilt between the schools

James Gilbert/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

Florida’s and Tennessee’s final meeting as SEC East division opponents will mark the end of an era.

It’s one the Gators have dominated despite the game ranking among the conference’s fiercest rivalries since it spilt into divisions in 1992. Just 7-24 in the series since then, UT now looks to end the annual divisional tussle with upper hand.

The No. 11 Vols (2-0) enter Saturday night’s visit favored to win consecutive games against UF for the first time since 2003-04, beginning with a 24-10 decision marking Tennessee’s last win in Gainesville.

The SEC will eliminate divisions in 2024 when Texas and Oklahoma form a 16-team league, though the Gators will visit Knoxville as decision-makers weigh a future scheduling model.

For now, a high-stakes, SEC-opening matchup in the sold-out Swamp against a longstanding rival offers the Gators (1-1) a chance for their biggest SEC win under Billy Napier.

“Our focus has been right on,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamari Lyons said. “I see that the players are locked in. They’re not playing around.”

Quick slant: Florida has lost its past two SEC openers, both at home — to Alabama and Kentucky. Tennessee’s last visit to the Swamp was a 38-14 loss in coach Josh Heupel’s first season in Knoxville after leaving UCF, but only 11 UF players remain two years later. The Gators are 16-5 in Gainesville during the series.

Coaches: Heupel, 20-8 in 3rd season (48-16 overall); Napier, 7-8 in 2nd season (47-20 overall)

About Tennessee: Heupel’s ballyhooed attack has been sporadic compared with the nation’s top-scoring team in 2022. A season after leading the SEC in passing (326.1 ypg), the Vols boast to league’s top rushing offense (257.5). Tailback Jaylen Wright, the team’s leading rusher last season as a sophomore, averages 9.32 yard per carry. Quarterback Joe Milton, 23 and in his first season as a starter, has 14 touchdowns passes and no interceptions the past two seasons but just four completions longer than 20 yards in 2023. Top receivers Bru McCoy, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior, and speedy 165-pound sophomore Squirrel White average just 10.3 and 7.5 yards per catch. Seniors Aaron Beasley and Omari Thomas lead a much-improved front seven. Beasley leads the SEC with six tackles for loss. Ditto senior cornerback Kamal Hadden with five passes defensed, part of an experienced secondary with three of five starters back.

About Florida: The Gators found their stride with 327 rushing yards against McNeese and now return veteran center Kingsley Eguakun to solidify the front. Egaukun and Co. must generate push for UF’s talented tailbacks Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne and keep quarterback Graham Mertz upright against the SEC’s sack leaders with 11. Utah sacked Mertz five times during UF’s season-opening loss. When given time, he has been accurate (73.8%) and effective. The defense has been surprisingly stingy after ranking among the nation’s worst in 2022. UF surrendered just 150 yards in the past six quarters, 38 to Utah in the second half and 112 to McNeese. Sophomore linebacker Shemar James leads the way with 19 tackles, two for loss — tied for the team lead with Lyons, one of several young impact players. First-year freshmen, safety Jordan Castell (10 stops) and cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson (2 PDs), are former Orlando-area high school stars.

3 things to watch

UT’s tempo and UF’s discipline: Heupel hopes to run a play every 18 seconds to apply constant pressure to an opposing defense. The Gators’ D was caught on its heels on the first play of 2023, allowing a 70-yard touchdown pass at Utah. First-year coordinator Austin Armstrong is likely to deploy some exotic packages for the Vols, but blown assignments and mental mistakes will doom the effort.

Princely Umanmielen: Big things were expected from the fourth-year Gator following a productive offseason and position change to edge rusher. Through two games, Umanmielen has flashed occasionally at best. That won’t cut it against one of the SEC’s top attacks.

A sold-out Swamp: A night game under the lights is sure to be lit and test the Vols’ resolve, no one’s more than Milton. Talented quarterbacks with bright futures have come unglued on Florida’s home field. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow threw three interceptions, including a pick-six, during a 2018 loss the season before he shattered NCAA records. In 2019, Auburn freshman Bo Nix was a hot mess with three turnovers.

Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN; Radio: ESPN FM 98.1/AM 850 WRUF, Sirius/XM 136 or 201

Weather: 79 degrees, 45% rain chance

Favorite: Tennessee 6.5 points

Online:; @osgators on X.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at