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Tennessee Football: Vols’ biggest game this year is still Florida

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I’ve grown weary of coaches saying the next game is the most important game. Tennessee Football head coach Josh Heupel is one of the worst at doing that.

Most of the time it’s not true. It’s just a way of coaches trying to get the attention of their players when their team is a heavy favorite.

For an SEC team, Ball State or UT-Martin or Austin Peay or Mercer or Grambling is NOT the most important game – even if it is the next game.

But this weekend, in Tennessee’s case, the next game IS the most important game – and it’s the most important game of the season for the Vols.

For Tennessee Football to come close to achieving its goals this year, it has to beat Florida.

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The Vols haven’t won in The Swamp since 2003. It has had the better team a handful of times and blown it, finishing with the better record at season’s end five times despite losing in Gainesville.

But this time is different.

Tennessee Football has better players and a better coach.

When is the last time you could say that about a Vols team headed to Gainesville?

That doesn’t always equal success, but in this case, the Vols SHOULD emerge victorious.

If not, it brings a lot of questions to the table.

If Tennessee can’t beat an average Florida team – one that lost to Utah’s backup quarterback – then UT likely can’t beat Georgia or Alabama. And might not beat Texas A&M or Kentucky or South Carolina.

A defeat to Florida brings an 8-4 record into the equation.

It would also cast doubts about the quarterback position.  Some doubts arose when Joe Milton started 1-for-8 against Austin Peay, misfiring on multiple throws. He had – by my count – three passes dropped.

When Milton is a little off target, don’t expect a completion. He throws the ball so hard, receivers aren’t likely to make hard catches. Can you recall a UT receiver catching a Milton throw that was a bit high or low or behind?

Milton does not throw a catchable ball like Hendon Hooker, who didn’t have as much zip on his passes.

Milton’s arm can be an advantage. He can stretch the field with 70-yard bombs, and he fires out routes so quickly, the receiver and blocker have time to execute.

That’s what he did against Austin Peay when he couldn’t complete a downfield pass.

But a steady diet of flanker screens likely won’t work against a more athletic Florida secondary, especially if they know it’s coming.

Here are a few notable stats worth examining.

*Florida outgained Tennessee 594 total yards to 576 last year in the Vols’ 38-33 victory. The Gators passed for 453 yards. Billy Napier’s team gained 346 yards against Utah (333 passing) in this year’s opener. Will Florida gain 425 total yards against Tennessee?

No. Florida couldn’t run the ball against Utah (13 net rush yards). Tennessee’s run defense will contain Florida and force Graham Mertz to throw. UT’s pass rush has 11 sacks thus far. UT will harass Mertz and hold Florida’s offense at bay.

*Tennessee Football rushed for 227 yards v. Florida last year. Will the Vols get more than 200 this year?

No. Florida held Utah to 105 rushing yards. And last year, Hendon Hooker had 112 of UT’s rush yards. Milton won’t come close to that total.

UT could approach 200 rush yards but not exceed that amount.

*Heupel’s teams are 27-0 when allowing fewer than 27 points. Will the Gators get to 27?

No. UT’s defense is faster, more athletic and generates a better pass rush than a year. Plus, the Gators scored 12 of their 33 points in the final five minutes last season and that was with the No. 4 pick of the NFL draft at quarterback.

During UT’s 9-game losing streak at Florida, the teams have combined for 60 points only once.

That will hold true again this season.

*Will Tennessee register more than 2.5 sacks against Florida?

No. Mertz isn’t as mobile as Richardson, but he will be more in tune to throwing the ball away rather than take a sack. Also, UT’s offense hasn’t been fast starting so the Gators likely won’t be playing from two or more touchdowns behind.

*Tennessee Football had five touchdown drives and no punts against Florida last year. Will UT have more touchdowns than punts this year?

No. The Vols had more punts (4) than touchdowns (3) against Austin Peay. Enough said.

*UT had five stops against Florida a year ago. Will the Vols have more stops this year?

Yes. If each team has 12 possessions, Florida won’t score on half of them. And the Gators were just 1-for-13 on third-down conversions against Utah.

Prediction: Tennessee 27, Florida 20.

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