KNOXVILLE — Nine of the past 11 years, the Tennessee-Florida football game was played on the season's third Saturday, and the annual rivalry clash will return to its normal weekend in 2017.
Had it done so a year sooner, the 46th game in the series would have looked much different.
The 14th-ranked Volunteers (3-0) and 19th-ranked Gators (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) are dealing with injuries to key players heading into Saturday's meeting between the SEC East rivals, though it shouldn't take away from the intensity of the game as Tennessee looks to snap an 11-year losing streak in the series and Florida hopes to take the first step in defending its division title.
"We're definitely excited about the upcoming game," Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs said after Saturday's 28-19 win against Ohio. "We have stuff to improve on from this past game. We'll definitely go back and watch the film and see what we did well, what we can improve on and get ready for Monday to be a better football team when we come to practice."
Hours after Tennessee lost star cornerback Cameron Sutton to injury in Saturday's game, Florida starting quarterback Luke Del Rio went down after taking a hit to his knee in the fourth quarter of a 32-0 rout of North Texas. Gators coach Jim McElwain after the game all but confirmed the former Alabama walk-on and Oregon State transfer would miss the Tennessee game.
"Somebody else will play," the second-year coach said in his postgame news conference. "We'll get some guys ready and move forward and get ready to go play next week. It should be really exciting. It's one of those games I'm sure they've been zeroed in on since last year in 'The Swamp.' We'll show up, we'll be there, so it should be a lot of fun."
Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, finished the game after Del Rio was hurt and is in line to start against the Vols. In 11 career starts the past two seasons with the Boilermakers, Appleby completed 55.5 percent of his passes and averaged 178 yards per game. He threw 16 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions and had seven rushing scores.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder tossed 11 interceptions in road starts at Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana and Marshall.
Appleby could become the latest reserve quarterback to help Florida continue its winning streak against Tennessee after Tyler Murphy and Treon Harris came off the bench in wins against the Vols in 2013 and 2014.
"When you lose your starting quarterback, it's always going to raise a couple eyebrows and (lead to) a couple of questions," Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor told reporters after Saturday night's game, "but the quarterback position's only as good as the people around him and the people around him are only as good as the quarterback position.
"It works both ways. We've got a lot of good receivers, a great offensive line and I can't even count how many running backs. If Luke can't go, I feel like Austin will step in and get the job done. He has a great defense behind him, so he doesn't really have to force anything."
Tennessee will be without two of its best defensive players — Sutton and previously injured linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. — while star linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is questionable after hurting his shoulder Saturday.
The return of Justin Martin, who sat out the Ohio game with an ankle injury, and Malik Foreman, suspended on Saturday, should replenish Tennessee's depleted secondary, which again could include Baylen Buchanan after the freshman's steady play against Ohio.
Still, Tennessee faces a tough task playing without at least two of its most important defenders.
"Baylen went out there, and he didn't really have those deer-in-the-headlights eyes," defensive back Rashaan Gaulden said. "I looked up, gave him an eyes check and he looked like he was ready to go. From his point of view, he's practicing hard. He's been practicing his assignment and alignment, his tackling and leverage.
"It's next man up," he added. "Colton Jumper, he's very capable and a very good middle linebacker. Cortez (McDowell), when he jumps in for Maybin (there's) no big dropoff. We're already in a next-man-up mindset, and we just execute."
It may not matter who plays quarterback for Florida given the early-season struggles of Tennessee's offensive line.
Through three games the Gators lead the nation in scoring defense and total defense and sacks with 16.
Beating Florida will require the Vols to be livelier and sharper than they've been in their first three games.
"I think everyone knows," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, "we have to play a lot better."
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