GAINESVILLE -- The national pundits have put the spotlight for Saturday’s meeting of rivals Florida and Tennessee squarely on the quarterbacks.
Junior Tyler Bray and the talented receiving duo of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson have the Volunteers ready for an aerial assault on the Gators defense. And sophomore Jeff Driskel, with just one true start under his belt, will be entering a raucous, sold-out Neyland Stadium with 102,000 screaming fans ready to rattle the UF quarterback.
That’s what the national pundits have said. That’s the sexy outlook. But that’s not what history dictates will determine the outcome at 6 p.m. when No. 18 Florida (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) and No. 23 Tennessee (2-0, 0-0) meet in Knoxville, Tenn.
Instead, the winner is likely to be the team that is effective running the ball and stopping the opposition. Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn knows keeping the Tennessee running game in check will be huge.
“Once a team is able to successfully do both, in the run game and in the pass game, that opens up all sorts of problems for the defense,” he said. “For us, it’s going to be a really important job.”
Since 2003, the team that has rushed for the most yards has won the game. For the past seven years, that team has been Florida. During that span, the Gators have outrushed the Volunteers 1,262 to 472 and twice held them to negative yards rushing. In Tennessee’s previous two wins in 2003 and ’04, it outrushed Florida 310 to 208.
While not an end-all path to victory, running the ball effectively will be paramount Saturday, especially for the Gators.
UF coach Will Muschamp has placed an emphasis on that aspect of the game, keeping the ball on the ground on more than 60 percent of the team’s snaps. Handling the bulk of that load is senior Mike Gillislee, who leads the SEC in carries (38), yards (231), touchdowns (four) and yards per game (115.5). Not surprisingly, Florida has controlled the time of possession this season, 68:15 to 51:45.
Gillislee strained his groin in last week’s victory against Texas A&M but is expected to play Saturday.
Despite all the hype surrounding the Tennessee passing attack, third-year coach Derek Dooley has put added importance on running the ball this season. Through two games, the Volunteers have actually averaged 6 more yards than the Gators. Junior Rajion Neal and sophomore Marlin Lane have each rushed for more than 100 yards, and sophomore Devrin Young has also been involved, with 10 carries for 44 yards. Even Patterson has made an impact on the ground, taking a reverse 67 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina State.
“They want to be physical and run the football,” Muschamp said. “They want to take advantage of their strengths offensively, which are at the quarterback and receiver position.”