Austin Appleby knew there was no guarantee that he would be the starting quarterback when he transferred to Florida.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You want to earn your job,” the graduate transfer from Purdue said. “You want to earn the respect of your teammates.”
Saturday will be his first chance to do so in a live game.
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With starter Luke Del Rio sidelined with a sprained MCL, Appleby is challenged with leading No. 19 Florida’s offense into Knoxville, Tennessee, for a 3:30 p.m. matchup on CBS against the No. 14 Volunteers that will host ESPN’s College GameDay beforehand.
Should he come out victorious, he’ll extend Florida’s win streak in the rivalry to 12 games and will be the sixth UF quarterback in as many years to lead Florida to a win in the series.
“We’ve got a job to do,” Appleby said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to go and execute with my brothers and play at a high level. A lot is at stake. We know what’s at stake.”
It’s an opportunity to show that he’s better than his numbers from Purdue indicate.
Appleby went 2-9 in 11 career starts with the Boilermakers, including a 1-5 record in road games. He has as many career passing touchdowns as interceptions (19).
He was beaten out for the starting job at Florida.
Even at that, though, Appleby didn’t change his approach in practice.
“He’s the next man up,” receiver Ahmad Fulwood said, “and he’s done a real good job of calming us down and knowing he’s got this, and we’re going to work around him.”
Appleby added: “You prepare the same way. You prepare to be out there. You prepare to have your number called so [that] when it is, you’re ready for it.”
Four weeks into the season, his number is being called in arguably Florida’s biggest matchup of the season.
Tennessee (3-0), the preseason favorite to win the SEC East, has won seven of its past eight games in Neyland Stadium, which packs in more than 100,000 fans. It is second in the SEC in passing defense (184 yards allowed/game) and has given up just three passing touchdowns this season. And the Volunteers have a versatile threat in quarterback Josh Dobbs to complement running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
“This ought to be fun for [Appleby],” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “He’s been in Big Ten stadiums. Now he gets to go to a real fun place to play in the SEC. The reason you come to Florida is to play in games like that.”
The Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) have needed a quarterback with that mentality each of the last three years.
In 2013, Jeff Driskel left in the first quarter after fracturing his fibula while being slammed to the ground after throwing a pick-six. Tyler Murphy entered in his place and left with a 31-17 win.
In 2014, Driskel returned and failed to move Florida’s offense. Then-UF head coach Will Muschamp relieved Driskel with freshman Treon Harris in the third quarter, and Harris responded with a pair of scoring drives that gave UF the 10-9 win.
And last year, with Harris suspended for the Tennessee game, Will Grier played from start to finish. After Florida fell behind 27-14 with about 10 minutes left in regulation, Grier led Florida to back-to-back touchdown drives, the last capped by a 63-yard touchdown to Antonio Callaway to lift Florida to a 28-27 victory.
Now, it’s Appleby’s turn.
“I don't think you ever want to be someone's caddy,” Appleby said. “You want to be the guy that's got the ball in their hand, and I'm excited about my opportunity.”
Saturday: No. 19 Florida @ No. 14 Tennessee
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Tennessee by 6 1/2.
Records: Florida 3-0 (1-0 SEC); Tennessee 3-0 (0-0 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 26-19.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR Antonio Callaway (quad); LB Daniel McMillian (ankle); DB Chris Williamson (knee); DB Kylan Johnson (leg); WR Chris Thompson (leg); DB Joseph Putu (ankle); WR Kalif Jackson (foot). Out — QB Luke Del Rio (knee); OL Tyler Jordan (eye); LB Jeremiah Moon (thumb); WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).
Tennessee injuries: Questionable — DL Danny O’Brien (undisclosed); DB Evan Bery (hamstring); DL LaTroy Lewis (ankle). Out — DB Cameron Sutton (ankle); LB Darrin Kirkland, Jr. (ankle); LB Quart’e Sapp (ACL).