Stakes only get higher as Florida turns to Tennessee

Gators defensive back Jalen Tabor (31), defensive back Keanu Neal (42) and defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III (1) celebrate after a Kentucky incompletion.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — So the Florida Gators are good enough to win a couple non-league home games and beat Kentucky on the road.

That much we know three weeks into the 2015 campaign.

Frankly, that’s been the case for quite a few Florida football seasons.

And as long as we’re dealing in truths, the Gators have won 10 straight over Southeastern Conference East Division rival Tennessee. Last year, the Gators defeated the Volunteers 10-9 on the road by erasing a 9-0 deficit in the fourth quarter and further frustrating the folks of Rocky Top in a series that has turned completely one-sided. UF has won 23 of the last 29 meetings, dating to 1976, with only five losses since the series turned annual in 1992.

So imagine how fired up the Volunteers (2-1, 0-0) will be for their latest crack at the Gators (3-0, 1-0) when the two collide Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

UF coach Jim McElwain would say the game represents another opportunity to play and those opportunities are few. In the more abstract, though, it’s a chance for the Gators to continue that search for an identity, be it at quarterback (Will Grier’s starting status is not a given), at the skill positions (no tailback has been dominate; no wide receiver has stepped to the forefront), on defense (mostly outstanding to date) and special teams (too many missed field goals; not enough flashy returns).

Also, another chance to reclaim The Swamp as the pit for opponents it used to be.

"We’re looking forward to having our fans come out and make this one of the most feared places to play. And for us? Elevating our guys," McElwain said Monday, two days after his team held on for a 14-9 win at Kentucky to open its SEC slate. "It’s really interesting. You put yourself in position by winning ballgames to play in bigger ballgames. And yet, this is the biggest game of the season because it’s the next game."

In winning Saturday night at Lexington, the Gators overcame an electric environment and fired-up foe to defeat the Wildcats for the 29th consecutive time. The streak, the longest active run for one FBS team over another, is impressive. The manner in which it was extended, not so much.

UF, with Grier playing the entire game, managed just 245 yards of offense and scored only twice on five trips into the red zone, and went backward on another in the second half after a first down at the UK 28. One of those red-zone trips ended with a Grier interception on first-and-goal at the Kentucky 5 when he tried to lob the ball over a UK defender in the end zone.

"Give it to a lucky fan [by throwing it away], but those are things you learn from and good thing it didn’t come back to bite us," McElwain said, adding later that not all of UF’s struggles should be put on the quarterback. "The position, I get it, everybody has to write about it. [But] It has as much to do with the other 10 around you and then your decisions in distributing the ball."

Florida’s six second-half possessions resulted in four punts, the interception and an end-of-game knee after an interception by UF cornerback Quincy Wilson in the final seconds clinched the game.

No guarantee

That sort of productivity — or lack of — won’t cut it against Tennessee.

"It’s just little things," sophomore slot receiver Brandon Powell said. "Nothing we can’t fix."

The next few days at practice figure to determine who’s under center; and for how long.

"Obviously, Will went the whole game, [but] don’t read anything into that as far as how this goes this week," McElwain said. "That’s something we’ll talk about as we go. I wouldn’t look into that more than we were kind of in the flow there a little bit."

Grier went the whole game at the expense of sophomore Treon Harris, who made his first big mark as a Gator last year when he entered the Tennessee game on the road and helped spark UF to its come-from-behind win.

McElwain praised Harris’s handling of the situation the other night.

"He’s a true team guy," McElwain said. "Obviously disappointed and yet — you know what? — he’ll prepare, he’ll be ready and we’ll see what happens this week."

The Gators will be without without inside linebacker Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and backup running back Case Harrison (thumb) for a second straight game, as well as outside linebacker Jeremi Powell, who suffered a leg injury Saturday. The status of tight end C’yontai Lewis (hand) will be determined later this week, but defensive end Jordan Sherit (foot), relegated to blocking on PAT and field-goal units only at Kentucky, is expected back.

Tennessee, now in Year 3 under Butch Jones, looms as the most talented and explosive of the Florida opponents yet. This was supposed to be the season the Vols, winners of four of their final five games in 2014, took the next big step.

After tabbing Joshua Dobbs as their starting quarterback midway thru last season, Tennessee averaged 36.7 points and 431 yards while winning four of its final five games. This season, with Dobbs at the helm, those offensive numbers show 46 points and 435 yards per game, yet in a 31-24 home loss to then-No. 17 Oklahoma, the Vols blew a 17-0 lead and managed only 254 total yards (a mere 125 passing) against a Sooners defense that a week later surrendered 603 yards in a 52-38 win against Tulsa.

Now, Dobbs and his mates will line up against a UF defense that checks in No. 2 nationally (258 yards per game) and first in the country in run defense (55.3 yards per game).

At Kentucky, the Gators blew up the Wildcats’ offensive front. Though UK did come away with 115 rushing yards, the Wildcats were victimized for 10 tackles behind the line (for 58 yards in losses), including six sacks, with two each from Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister. On Monday Bullard was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.

Photo gallery

After watching UK quarterback Patrick Towles throw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s triple-overtime Florida win, the UF defense limited Towles to just eight completions on 24 attempts for 126 yards and picked him off twice.

"We just got back to the basics. Technique. Having our eyes in the right place," Wilson said. "We know how to get the job done. It’s just those little things that caused us to give up all those yards. We just focused on the little things throughout the week and we came back better against Kentucky."

The UF defense got a big lift from the return of junior strong safety Keanu Neal, whose nine tackles rated second only to 10 from inside linebacker Jarrad Davis, who was all over the field.

The Gators will need a lot more this week against a Tennessee offense armed with more dangerous skill-position players, be it running backs Jalen Hurd (300 yards, 5.2 per carry, 5 TDs) or Alvin Kamara (195 yards, 7.5 per, 2 TDs), or the seven receivers, led by sophmore Josh Malone (9 catches, 92 yards, 1 TD), who have caught at least three passes and are averaging better than 10 yards per reception.

For the record, neither the 10 consecutive wins, nor the Gators overall mastery in the series, will be a factor.

McElwain won’t let it be.

"Rivalries, streaks, whatever they are, every coach will tell you each game is an individual event. It’s a different set of players," McElwain said. "I just believe in, if you take care of now, the game is going to come no matter what. Just don’t get caught up in all that. Focus on the now and that’s what we try to do."