Florida Gators at Tennessee Volunteers game preview

Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby (left) and Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (right).

USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida-Tennessee game is always important to the SEC East standings.

No different when the Gators and Vols run onto the field Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium. But this game does have a different feel than some recent ones in the series. First, both teams enter their annual September clash unbeaten and ranked for the first time in four years.

Easy to understand why ESPN chose Knoxville on Saturday as its broadcast hub for "College GameDay." The interest in this one is high and stretches beyond both campuses.

"That’s why you come to Florida," head coach Jim McElwain said. "Here’s the great thing about the University of Florida: you’ve got a bunch of these. Look, I’ve been at places where you had to make one up. Go out and let loose and have fun with it, enjoy the environment, enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the attention."

The Gators have been doing that for months now, ever since junior cornerback Teez Tabor — still going by Jalen back then — irritated Tennessee fans on Twitter by poking fun at the fact former Vols quarterback Peyton Manning never beat the Gators.

Over the summer Tabor stated on multiple occasions the Gators expect to beat the Vols. Other teammates chimed in, too, always armed with the truth: Florida has beaten Tennessee 11 consecutive years.

"The only person that can beat us is the Florida Gators, that’s all," senior linebacker Jarrad Davis said this week. "So we’re going to go out and do exactly what we do as Florida Gators, and we’re going to dominate the game."

The tone in Knoxville has been relatively mild — not on talk radio, but among players and coaches — especially when discussion turned to Florida’s recent dominance.

More Florida Gators news

"Of course, it’s 11 games, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t think about it," Tennessee defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said. "Every day we’re trying to be a better team. We come into the week and we know it’s Florida, we know they’re our rivals and we pretty much don’t like each other."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones wanted no part of the festivities leading up to the game. He kept the focus on football and his team.

No surprise there considering the Tennessee fan base will be shouting loud come Sunday morning should the Vols lose.

"A lot of times you try to eliminate clutter and distraction and focus on the task at hand," Jones said. "Everybody understands in our football program what this game is. It’s special, it’s a rivalry game. Everybody understands the magnitude, but for me, it’s getting our football team better."

Time for talk is almost over. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS. Regardless of the outcome, not a bad way to spend a weekend afternoon.

For more on the Florida-Tennessee game, here is The Opening Kickoff:

THREE QUESTIONS WITH … SECONDARY COACH TORRIAN GRAY

Q: Do you, like some others, consider Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson the best cornerback tandem in the country?

A: Obviously I haven’t seen everybody, but knowing the talent level and the competitiveness that those two guys have, I do think that they’re the best cornerback tandem in the country. They’re confident. They’re athletic. They’re long. They play with swagger and they’re just two talented guys.

Q: He gets overlooked at times, but what is your assessment of safety Marcus Maye?

A: Marcus has been lights out, just dialed in, toned in, tackling well, playing the ball really well, breaking on the ball well. He’s just playing at a very elite level. We just want him to keep doing what he’s doing. I tell you, he’s doing everything well.

Q: Have you ever coached a group of defensive backs as confident as what you have in your first season at Florida?

A: No. I haven’t had a group that’s playing with the confidence that this group is playing with right now. They’re really executing and it’s how those guys are really playing in practice. I’ve been very impressed with the way we’re handling our business, going about our business, and showing up on Saturdays.

THREE STORYLINES

— Yes, it must be mentioned again. Florida has defeated Tennessee 11 consecutive times. While this game is important to both teams in the SEC East race, undoubtedly more pressure is on the Vols to finally beat the Gators in what was one of college football’s top rivalries in the 1990s.

— Graduate transfer Austin Appleby replaces injured Gators starting quarterback Luke Del Rio in the biggest game of the young season. Appleby started 11 games in his career at Purdue but not a game with as much hype and interest as this one. Appleby doesn’t need to try to win this one by himself with the way Florida’s defense is playing and four capable running backs to hand the ball to.

— The Gators had trouble containing Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs a year ago at the Swamp. Dobbs ran for 136 yards, passed for 83 and had a 58-yard touchdown reception. The Vols usually go the way Dobbs goes. If he has success early, Neyland Stadium is going to be rocking. If not, the Gators could have the upper edge.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

— Florida’s running game has produced 499 yards the past two weeks behind the foursome of Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite, Mark Thompson and Lamical Perine. All are capable of having a big game, but Perine seems to have a little of that "it" factor. He is only three games into his career, but Perine is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, tops among the group, and often gains yardage after contact.

— Tennessee senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin missed much of last week’s win over Ohio with a strained shoulder muscle. However, the Vols got good news this week when Reeves-Maybin returned to practice. Reeves-Maybin is as good as any player on Tennessee’s defense and will be a factor if 100 percent.

— Florida junior cornerback Teez Tabor turned up the volume on this rivalry over the summer when he said the Gators expect to beat Tennessee for a 12th consecutive year. Of course, that didn’t go over too well on Rocky Top and Vols fans let Tabor know on social media. Tabor never lacks confidence, but he’ll have to keep his emotions in check Saturday with 100,000 fans booing each time his name is mentioned.

THE QUOTE FILE

— "I know what I got here on the job, I was instructed my responsibility — and winning these first three games was great — but I’ve been told on numerous occasions that my responsibility is to win this game." — First-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop on facing Florida

— "I’ve been to Nebraska, I’ve been to Ohio State, I’ve been to Michigan State, I’ve been to Penn State. The stadiums are the same. At the end of the day it’s all noise. I think if you ask a lot of players they’ll say the same thing — it all kind of quietens and you lock into your zone." — Gators quarterback Austin Appleby on playing in front of 100,000-plus fans at Neyland Stadium

— "He’s one of those guys, unless it’s the World Cup, I don’t think anything would really bother him. I really don’t." — Jim McElwain on kicker Eddy Pineiro playing on road for first time

— "He’s going to be out there. I know the kid and know him personally. He is going to get up for this game and he is going to be in for this challenge." — Tennessee assistant coach Larry Scott, a former Miami assistant who recruited Florida receiver Antonio Callaway

— "He has great size, and the thing that couples with his size is he can run, and he can extend plays. I have a lot of respect for him, and I know a lot about him." — Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Appleby, who was offered a scholarship by Cincinnati when Jones was coach there.

INJURY REPORT

PROBABLE: WR Antonio Callaway (quad), WR Tyrie Cleveland (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: LB Daniel McMillian (ankle); OUT: QB Luke Del Rio (knee), OL Tyler Jordan (eye).

MAC HAS THEIR BACK

Gators head coach Jim McElwain seethed when a low hit by North Texas defensive end Joshua Wheeler injured quarterback Luke Del Rio. After checking on Del Rio, McElwain had to be held back by players DeAndre Goolsby and Fred Johnson as he yelled toward the Mean Green’s sideline.

McElwain didn’t like the play and let everyone know.

"Our team knows me. I’m pretty transparent," he said. "They know how much I care. That’s who I am."

At his Thursday night radio show, a woman in the crowd told McElwain how she felt about his outburst.

"Thank you for taking up for our guys," she said. "If I had been on the sideline I would have been right out there with you."

As for those on the sideline, McElwain’s passionate support carries weight in the locker room.

"It makes you feel good inside about who you’re playing for," senior safety Marcus Maye said. "We all woke up. It was just something about it that made everybody, you know, come together and feel like this is a family."

10 QUICK HITTERS

— Tennessee is without senior cornerback Cam Sutton, who suffered a broken leg a week ago against Ohio. Sutton is the Vols’ best defensive back and has started all 41 games of his career. His 34 passes defended entering last week’s game ranked fourth among all FBS active players.

— The Gators have allowed just 14 points through three games, their fewest allowed in the first three games since 1966. Florida leads the nation in total defense (129.7 yards per game), scoring defense (4.7 points per game), sacks (16) and opponent completion percentage (33.9).

— The Vols enter riding a nine-game win streak dating to last season, their longest since winning 14 in a row during their 1998 national championship season (13-0) and the 1999 season opener.

— John Shoop, brother of Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, was Gators quarterback Austin Appleby’s quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator at Purdue.

— ESPN’s "College GameDay" is broadcasting live from Knoxville on Saturday. The Gators are making their 37th appearance in a game with the show on-site, more than any school in the country. Florida is 24-12, Tennessee 7-11 in games with "College GameDay" on campus.

— Gators defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga is the first UF freshman since at least 2006 to have two two-sack games in a season. Zuniga has a team-high four sacks.

— Redshirt junior linebacker Alex Anzalone, who missed the Tennessee game last year, has 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the first three games. Anzalone entered the season with just 22 career tackles and will set a career high for a season with one more.

— The Gators had four different running backs rush for at least one touchdown against North Texas, marking the first time that has happened since 2003 against Florida A&M.

— The Gators have edged Tennessee by a point the last two years — 10-9 in 2014; 28-27 in 2015 — but have won by an average of 12.7 points during the 11-game win streak over the Vols. A big reason: Florida has a +13 turnover margin (27-14) over that span.

— The Vols are wearing their "Smokey Grey" uniforms on Saturday. The combination features grey pants, grey jerseys with orange numbers, and great helmets with an outline of the Smokey Mountains.

FUN STUFF

College football is serious stuff, sometimes too serious for too many people. But it’s also fun. Isn’t that why we like it in the first place?

It certainly was fun on social media Thursday afternoon as Oregon’s official Twitter account got into the action regarding Gators cornerback Quincy Wilson’s "ducks don’t pull trucks" statement earlier this week, his way of predicting the Gators will beat the Vols for the 12th consecutive time.

Enjoy the following Twitter exchange:

BOTTOM LINE


The Gators have had a lot of fun this week leading up to Saturday’s game. The Vols have taken a more serious approach, at least publicly. Will Tennessee eventually win again in this rivalry? Yes. Is it going to happen on Saturday at Neyland Stadium? Don’t think so. That’s just a gut feeling from the vibes coming out of Knoxville compared to those in Gainesville. While Tennessee is favored at home, the Gators are every bit as talented and certainly appear more confident. Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs needs to have a big game for the Vols to win. Gators quarterback Austin Appleby just needs to play a smart game. All anyone knows for certain about this much-anticipated matchup is that these are the kind of games that make college football fun. Real fun for the winning fan base.