The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: Bitter rivals square off in Knoxville this weekend, as the 10th-ranked Florida Gators invade Neyland Stadium to battle the Tennessee Volunteers in the SEC opener for both squads.
Urban Meyer's Gators are off to a 2-0 start, although it has not come without some criticism, considering it is the post-Tim Tebow Era and Florida hasn't looked like a national title contender in the early going. Wins over Miami- Ohio (34-12) and South Florida (38-14) were not in typical UF fashion, leading people to question just how good the Gators will be without one of college football's all-time greats.
Derek Dooley would like nothing better than to prove how vulnerable Florida is and getting a big win over Tennessee's biggest rival would do wonders for the first-year coach. After opening the season with a 50-0 pasting of UT-Martin, the Vols ended up on the other end of a lopsided score, falling hard at home to nationally-ranked Oregon, 48-13. The Vols were up 13-3 in the game before allowing 45 unanswered points. Just how well Tennessee responds this week could tell the tale of the 2010 campaign in Knoxville.
The all-time series favors Florida by the slimmest of margins at 20-19. Tennessee holds an 11-9 edge in games played in Knoxville, but the Gators have won the last two meetings in Neyland Stadium.
Quarterback John Brantley may have the toughest job in college football, as he is charged with replacing a legend in Gainesville. The criticism has been piled on in the early going, as Florida has struggled offensively, just 317.5 yards per game. The team is putting up 36.0 ppg, but that number will start to decline in a hurry if Brantley doesn't start performing in SEC action. He certainly hasn't been awful, completing 62.5 percent of his passes, with four TDs and no interceptions, but he is only throwing for around 140 yards per game.
Tailback Jeff Demps has been the top offensive performer over the first two games, averaging a gaudy 12.5 yards per carry and 118.5 yards per game. He rumbled for 139 yards in the win over South Florida this past week. The ground game as a whole has generated 175.0 yards per game and will likely be the preferred mode of travel for the Gators in 2010, especially if Brantley fails to increase production in the passing game.
The Florida defense has certainly been a pleasant surprise considering the talent that has left the team from last season. However, the strong numbers have a lot to do with the competition to this point. Florida has been extremely stingy against the pass (147.0 ypg), and has recorded a whopping eight interceptions already. That has a lot to do with the play of All- American candidate Ahmad Black in the secondary. The senior strong safety has been all over the field and leads the team in tackles with 20. He is also responsible for three of the team's INTs. Junior CB Janoris Jenkins (seven tackles, two INTs) is another ballhawk roaming downfield for Florida. Junior DT Jaye Howard (2.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) has been strong up front, while LBs Jonathan Bostic (11 tackles, one INT) and A.J. Jones (10 tackles) have been impressive in the middle.
The Volunteers will do their best at ball control, limiting Florida's opportunities and may just have one of the better players in the SEC to do just that in junior tailback Tauren Poole. The 5-11, 215-pounder currently leads the conference in rushing (136.0 ypg), thanks in large part to his career-high 162 yards last week against Oregon.
Poole has waited patiently for his turn in Knoxville and Dooley knows he's got something special in the talented runner.
"I will say he's taken advantage of his opportunity as well as anybody. And if everybody on our team had the competitive character and the personal character that Tauren Poole has, we'd have a heck of a little squad. He's a special guy. When I say special, I don't mean that God has blessed him with all this ability. He is to me exactly what every competitor should strive for, and that's to play to your capacity as a player. And Tauren's playing to his capacity."
Poole will certainly take some pressure off of junior QB Matt Simms, who has played to mixed reviews in the early going, completing 54.7 percent of his passes, for 332 yards, with one TD and one INT. The receiving corps features 6-1 senior Denarius Moore (eight catches, for 103 yards and one TD), but veteran Gerald Jones (six receptions, for 86 yards) is currently out with a broken hand and will be sorely missed until his return.
Not much went right for the Tennessee defense last weekend and the game just kind of got away from the Vols in the second half. In all, UT yielded 447 yards of total offense, including 245 to a lethal Oregon ground attack. Shoring things up is the first thing this unit must do, especially with Florida's penchant for running the football. Sophomore safety Prentiss Waggner has certainly come on strong in the early going. He leads the team in tackles with 13, and is responsible for two of the team's three takeaways thus far with an interception and fumble recovery. Senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz is a close second in terms of tackles (11), followed by senior nose tackle Gerald Williams (nine tackles, two TFLs, one sack).