When Tennessee cornerback Alontae Taylor was preparing for last December's game against Florida, he was bracing for an aerial attack headed by quarterback Kyle Trask and containing tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney.
The good news for Taylor and his fellow Volunteers defenders is that they've all moved on. The bad news is that Florida's offensive overhaul under fourth-year coach Dan Mullen into a ground-oriented assault has been mighty effective through three games as the No. 11 Gators await this Saturday night's visit from Tennessee.
"We understand that Florida likes to run the ball," Taylor said this week in a news conference. "They've got really good, strong backs and a good offensive line, and the quarterbacks like to run as well. We've got to make sure we can make tackles.
"If we can lower our missed tackles, it would certainly be a positive."
Despite coming up short 31-29 this past Saturday to top-ranked Alabama in the Swamp, the Gators served notice that they are not looking to retreat after winning the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division title a year ago. Florida racked up 440 yards to 331 by the Crimson Tide and was overwhelming in the rushing statistics, amassing 245 yards to Alabama's 91.
Tennessee has been very good against the run so far this season, allowing 54.3 yards per game to rank fifth nationally, but its three opponents have been Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech and a pass-happy Pittsburgh.
"It's going to be a major challenge," Vols defensive line coach Rodney Garner said Tuesday. "Obviously this is the best offensive line we've faced. It's the best group of running backs and the best group of receivers, and the quarterback is the complete package. Obviously we've got to elevate our level of play.
TENNESSEE IN 2022
Sept. 3 BALL STATE
Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh
Sept. 17 AKRON
Sept. 24 FLORIDA
Oct. 1 Open Date
Oct. 8 at LSU
Oct. 15 ALABAMA
Oct. 22 UT-MARTIN
Oct. 29 KENTUCKY
Nov. 5 at Georgia
Nov. 12 MISSOURI
Nov. 19 at South Carolina
Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt
"We're in conference now, so it's going to be more intense. When you get into conference play, you're not going to be better than anybody you line up against, so you've got to make sure that you're fundamentally sound so you have a chance to compete."
Florida fifth-year senior running back Malik Davis has 31 rushes for an impressive 212 yards and 6.8 yards per carry, but he ranks third on the team in rushing behind backup quarterback Anthony Richardson (11-275, 25.0) and starting quarterback Emory Jones (42-231, 5.5). Richardson sat out last week's loss with a hamstring injury but could play Saturday.
Senior running back Dameon Pierce has rushed 18 times for 110 yards (6.1), and the Gators still have a veteran receiving threat with redshirt junior Jacob Copeland, who has seven catches for 200 yards (28.6).
A year after Florida led the nation in passing offense with 378.6 yards a game, the revamped Gators rank second nationally in rushing with 336.3 yards per contest.
"The key to learning through the years is making sure that we had the flexibility to match our players and our personnel," Mullen said Monday on a Zoom call.
Florida has defeated Tennessee 15 out of the last 16 years, winning the past four meetings, including the last three by double digits. Garner was an Auburn senior guard in 1988, when the Tigers defeated the Gators 16-0 in the last shutout Florida has experienced in the Swamp, but he was mostly on the losing end during Georgia-Florida games in Jacksonville as a Bulldogs assistant from 1998 to 2012.
"This is what you come to Tennessee for," Garner said. "You want to play on this stage. That's the beauty of this conference. There's nothing like it until you get to the NFL. You're playing the best of the best.
"We talk about moving the needle, and I think we'll find out how much the needle has moved when you go against elite competition, and obviously Florida is elite."
Tennessee junior edge-rusher Byron Young, the transfer from Georgia Military College who missed the first two games due to an NCAA eligibility suspension, tied with Aubrey Solomon for the team-high in tackles last weekend against Tennessee Tech with six. Garner was asked Tuesday to assess Young's performance.
"You saw where he was rusty," Garner said. "Byron is an old guy, but he's a young football player. It hurt him not having those two games to sharpen his skills and work on technique, but you can tell he has a presence, and you can feel that in a game.
"Now he's got to get out there and work on the details."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.