Florida opponent previews – Tennessee and LSU

By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor

Coming off a tough showdown on the road at Alabama, the Florida Gators will have a bye week before entering Knoxville, Tennessee, and the not-so-friendly confines of Neylend Stadium when it squares off against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Florida will be facing Tennessee for the 44th time in program history, looking to extend its series winning streak to 10-straight games dating back to 2005.

The Volunteers are looking to find some momentum in the second year under head coach Butch Jones, the program’s third coach in five seasons. Under Jones, Tennessee upset then-No. 11 South Carolina 23-21 last season, one of its few highlights of the 2013 campaign. The Vols also lost four-straight games, however, with blowout losses to Alabama, Missouri and Auburn as well as a close defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt.

Head-to-Head

FLORIDA GATORS TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4) Head Coach: Butch Jones (Year: 2)
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5) 2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Common Opponents: 1-4 Common Opponents: 2-3
Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg) Scoring Offense: 94th (23.8 ppg)
Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg) Scoring Defense: T-78th (29.0 ppg)


Who’s Coming Back?

The Vols were fortunate linebacker A.J. Johnson decided against declaring for the draft last season as an underclassman. Johnson totaled 106 tackles (8.5 for loss) as a junior last fall while serving as the heart and soul of Tennessee’s defense.

On offense, the Volunteers return a pair of wideouts to keep an eye on: Marquez North and Alton Howard. The tandem combined to haul in 82 passes for 884 yards and four scores, impressive numbers comparative to the rest of the squad, especially considering how much passing game struggled for Tennessee last season.

Who Left?

Returning 10 starters from 2013 – spread evenly with five on each side of the ball – the Vols only lost three players to the draft. However, Tennessee will return with an experienced offensive line, which is expected to further expose the issues it has at quarterback following the departure of Tyler Bray in 2012.

The Volunteers were hopeful former four-star prospect Riley Ferguson was going to take the reigns as signal caller, but he left the program in May after redshirting in 2013. It took Jones until Aug. 14 to name Justin Worley, who went 10-of-23 with one touchdown and two interceptions against Florida last fall, the starter entering the 2014 campaign.

The defense will also be relatively inexperienced having to replace six of the front seven. With a tough schedule on its plate, Tennessee will require a solid effort from the defensive side of the ball to have a chance at a bowl game this season.

What Else?

Jones to this point has been a phenomenal recruiter for the Vols, and he hopes to see the fruits of his labor pay off this season with a very young roster. Entering the season with a “one brick at a time mantra,” Jones is trying to build a solid foundation for the future after Tennessee crumbled following its glory days under a younger Phil Fulmer. There are more questions than answers for the Volunteers, and a third-ranged strength of schedule will make finding solutions more difficult.

Common Opponents

As SEC East divisional rivals, UF and UT share at least five common opponents every year. The Gators went 1-4 against in-division with their lone win coming against Kentucky, while the Vols notched victories over UK and USC. Tennessee nearly upset the Georgia but ultimately fell 34-31 in overtime.

Last Time Out

Despite losing starting QB Jeff Driskel to a season-ending ankle injury early in the contest, Florida dominated at home with a 31-17 victory. Backup Tyler Murphy, who had not thrown a collegiate pass entering the contest, managed the Gators to a win with an 8-for-14 performance that resulted in 134 yards through the air and 84 more on the ground. Florida dominated Tennessee defensively in the first half, allowing 31 total yards on 25 plays. The only time the Vols even put points on the board in the opening portion of the contest was on a pick-six, the same play that ended Driskel’s season.

After playing consecutive games on the road against league opponents – despite having a bye week in between – Florida returns home for one of its toughest tests of the season when it hosts its permanent SEC West rival, the LSU Tigers. No strangers, the Gators and Tigers have squared off 61 times with the teams 5-5 in the last 10 meetings.

Head-to-Head

FLORIDA GATORS LSU TIGERS
Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4) Head Coach: Les Miles (Year: 9)
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5) 2013 Record: 10-3 (5-3)
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Common Opponents: 1-1 Common Opponents: 1-1
Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg) Scoring Offense: 23rd (35.8 ppg)
Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg) Scoring Defense: 21st (22.0 ppg)

Who’s Coming Back?

LSU’s defense returns the majority of its and is locked-and-loaded with talent, despite struggling mightily in a couple road losses in 2013. Defensive back Rashard Robinson returns as a standout for the Tigers and represents an incredible challenge for the Gators’ rebuilt receiving corps. Last fall, he held Texas A&M standout receiver Mike Evans to just 13 yards on three receptions when the two were matched up.

Four offensive linemen are also on their way back for LSU with only Traj Turner departing from last year’s dominant unit. This is integral for the Tigers to be successful on offense and reduce the pressure on whoever wins the starting job at quarterback (still unannounced as of press time) – either single-game starter Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. The offensive line will also be instrumental in the success of Leonard Fournette, LSU’s prized running back recruit.

Who Left?

The quarterback position will be the biggest question mark for the Tigers with Miles already saying whomever starts the first game may not remain in that role for the entire campaign. Zach Mettenberger was drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Tennessee after benefitting most from the revival of the LSU offense under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. He accounted for more than 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air, only coughing up eight interceptions before suffering a season-ending injury.

The Tigers will also be without several key skill players on offense, all of which were lost to the draft, including running backs Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry.

What Else?

Miles hauled in one of the best recruiting classes in 2014, as they did the year prior. Despite losing plenty of playmaking talent, LSU should be able to reload with youngsters, though again, much will depend on the quarterback play.

Defensively, the Tigers could give the Gators fits by improving their shaky run defense. However, if the front seven cannot win the war in the trenches, Florida could be off to the races with its explosive group.

Common Opponents

The Gators and Tigers shared two common foes in 2013: Georgia and Arkansas. Both teams fell to the Bulldogs by three points but dominated the Razorbacks in their respective contests.

Last Time Out

LSU absolutely dominated UF in the trenches in 2013, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 39 attempts with Hill carrying the ball for 121 yards. The Gators only managed a pair of field goals against the Tigers, which handed Florida its first of seven consecutive defeats to end the campaign. It was the first contest where the Gators’ offensive losses were magnified as UF was simply incapable of even moving the ball against LSU.

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