Through its storied history and because the Southeastern Conference’s rotating schedule existed until the advent of divisional play in 1992, Tennessee only has had four coaches defeat rival Florida in their first full season of coaching. No coach has accomplished the feat in his first entire season since Bill Battle in 1970. Battle’s Vols battered the Gators of Doug Dickey, 38-7, on national TV in Knoxville en route to a Sugar Bowl campaign.
Of course, Phillip Fulmer as interim, led Tennessee to a resounding 31-14 win against the Gators in 1992, though Fulmer’s Vols lost a shootout on the road in Gainesville a year later in his first full season.
Saturday night, however, Jeremy Pruitt has a chance to guide the Vols (2-1) past the Gators (2-1) under the lights of Neyland Stadium — IF these five people emerge as difference-makers.
1. Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton
Tennessee is averaging a scant 19 points per game against Football Bowls Subdivision foes, but that does not present a complete illustration of the Vols’ offense.
Helton very clearly has been doing two things with his initial Tennessee offense: protecting it from potentially catastrophic mistakes/situations and seeing if the offensive line can develop into even an average unit that can allow time for a bevy of playmakers to break out.
With homefield advantage, perhaps the fewest Gators’ fans inside Neyland Stadium in decades, and two teams in Year 1 eras of new coaches, this is the time for Helton to shine for Tennessee.
The Vols have been working trick plays, and now is the time to use them. Jarrett Guarantano is a fabulous athlete; could we see a throw-back play to him?
Whatever they’ve got, the Vols and Helton should not hesitate to use some of their arsenal. This is very much a winnable game for Tennessee; it presents an opportunity for equity at the onset of the Pruitt era.
2. Running back Ty Chandler
Though the way this series’ modern iteration has unfolded has most often lent itself to surprise stars for the Gators, Tennessee also has had some game-changing plays from the likes of Shawn Bryson in 1998 and Jauan Jennings just two years ago.
This time, Ty Chandler could be that difference-maker for Tennessee. Chandler possesses the Vols’ best home-run threat from the backfield, as evidenced by his 81-yard score down the sideline last week against UTEP. That run is the Vols’ longest of the season and is more than the per-game averages of any of Tennessee’s three primary tailbacks.
Too, Chandler can catch the ball well out of the backfield. If Tennessee’s bigger, bruising backs can pound on the Gators’ defense, Chandler could uncork a difference-maker type of play.
3. Darrin Kirkland Jr.
The veteran linebacker from Indianapolis is the team-leader with 17 tackles, including a sack, as well as a quarterback-hurry and a pick-six.
Perhaps more importantly, Kirkland owns experience in 24 career games. As Tennessee defense continues to show it is soundly coached, but thus far is lacking in pure pass rush, Kirkland stands as a central figure on Saturday night. The Vols need to force a Gators’ offense that hasn’t shown much more dynamics than its own to have to execute full drives and work the length of the field.
Kirkland’s ability to make the Vols and get his teammates into position can absolutely be a difference in this game.
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