There’s no question Tennessee and Florida is an intriguing matchup.
The Volunteers (2-0) will attempt to snap a six-game losing streak against the No. 16 Gators (2-0) when they visit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium today at 3:39 p.m. (CBS).
Many of the teams’ exclamation points during convincing victories in each of their first two games suddenly seem like question marks.
After carving up Montana and Cincinnati with an air of superiority, will Tennessee sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray have time to utilize sophomore wideouts Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers? Will Tennessee left tackle Dallas Thomas (knee) be 100 percent, and can UT’s young offensive line handle the Gators’ exceptional defensive front even if he is? Can Florida defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd, who will make his 2011 debut after serving a two-game suspension, pick up where he left off while making the All-SEC Freshman team in 2010.
Does Florida’s young secondary — two true freshmen and two sophomores — have a prayer if Bray has time to throw?
Can crowd noise silence Bray? His three road starts last year were essentially home games — at Memphis, at Vanderbilt and against North Carolina in Nashville, where the crowd appeared to be 85 percent orange.
“He could go out there and have a spring game (6-for-30), or he
could go out there and light it up,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “I know this: it’s not all on Tyler. We’ve got to block those four guys up front. We’ve got to handle all the blitzes and junk they are going to bring us. We’ve got to get open. We’ve got to catch the football.”
There’s no question Bray’s statistics — 51 of 65 for 698 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions — have motivated the Gators.
“This guy’s completing 80 percent of his passes; it’s pretty easy to get ready,” first-year Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s been very accurate with the ball — not just in the intermediate, but also in the vertical passing game. He’s got two explosive guys outside. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Many Florida fans are still questioning second-year starting quarterback John Brantley, who hasn’t exactly made them forget Tim Tebow or Chris Leak — or Noah Brindise or Terry LeCount, for that matter.
Can Brantley capitalize if the UT secondary continues to make several busts in coverage?
Considering it has speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, does Florida even need an above-average quarterback or a cohesive, choreographed offense under first-year coordinator Charlie Weis to exploit a young, thin Volunteers defense? Could two or three screen passes win a game for Weis?
“When they create a little air for their fast guys,” Dooley said, “they’re hard to catch and hard to bring down.”
Rainey has averaged 7.3 yards per carry while rushing for 198 yards and two TDs. Demps, who won the NCAA Indoor national title with a 6.57 60-meter dash in 2010, also has rushed for two TDs and averaged 8.2 yards per carry en route to 115 yards. Each has a career average of 7.1 yards per carry, which is No. 1 in the nation.
The tandem’s speed and experience are all the more unnerving for Dooley when considering Tennessee’s defense figures to start three true freshmen, including linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
“We’re glad we have A.J. and Curt,” Dooley said. “We’d be in a real bind if we didn’t. And that doesn’t mean they’re playing great, but it just means they have the potential to be really good players for us over the long haul.
“They’ve done a real good job for true freshmen the first two games, but this is gonna be a big test for them, because they’re gonna be playing a lot and they’re gonna be going against guys that are more athletic, bigger … than they’re used to, and they’re gonna be trying to chase down guys that are faster than they’ve ever seen.”
Rainey also has nine catches for 110 yards, both team highs. He has a TD reception and returned a blocked punt 22 yards for a score.
“Watching his body of work over time, he just has an incredible way to impact a game,” Dooley said. “Whether it’s at runner, whether it’s at returner, whether it’s blocking punts, whether it’s returning blocked punts for touchdowns — you always see the guy in critical moments making big plays. … It’s just a combination of tremendous speed and athleticism, but also competitive character.”
Dooley hopes Tennessee can have some early success through the air to loosen formations up for the running game. Despite two easy Vols victories, UT senior Tauren Poole has found the going relatively rough with 45 carries for 199 yards (4.4 yards per carry).
“We really haven’t run it great since I’ve been here — not the way we need to,” Dooley said. “What can help us running the ball is gonna be, you know, our ability to throw and catch, because we’re just not a naturally dominating run — power-running football team right now. We hope to get to that point, but we haven’t shown that we can do that right now.”
Notes: Tennessee’s last victory against a ranked opponent was the 31-13 win against No. 21 South Carolina when Lane Kiffin had the Vols wear black jerseys on Halloween in 2009. … A win would give Tennessee its first 3-0 start since 2004, which was the last time it beat the Gators. … Florida is a 9 1/2-point favorite.