Vols vs. Gators notebook
Published 12:27 pm Friday, September 15, 2023
With a pair of victories under its belt to open the season, No. 11/9 Tennessee opens Southeastern Conference play on Saturday with a trip down to Gainesville to battle SEC East rival Florida.
The Volunteers will look to make it two straight wins in the series for the first time since 2003 and 2004 after dispatching the Gators, 38-33, last season in Knoxville.
Saturday’s contest will be televised nationally in primetime as Chris Fowler (PxP), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst) and Holly Rowe (sideline) will have the call on ESPN. Kickoff is slated for 7:08 p.m. ET.
ans can listen to Tennessee’s official radio broadcast on the Vol Network (Local: WIVK-FM 107.7/WNML-FM 99.1) over 70 stations across the state of Tennessee and the southeast, SiriusXM (Ch. 133 or 190) and the SiriusXM app (Ch. 961), as well as the Varsity App. A live audio stream of the broadcast will also be available on UTSports.com and the Tennessee Athletics App.
Bob Kesling (PxP), VFL Jeff Francis (analyst) and Brent Hubbs (analyst) will call the action, with VFL Jayson Swain handling sideline duties for the Vol Network radio broadcast. The Big Orange Countdown pregame show begins two hours prior to kickoff at 5 p.m. ET.
Need to know
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ attacking defense leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (12.5) and is tied for first with Nebraska in sacks per game (5.5). Banks’ unit has racked up 11.0 total sacks, which is tied for first in the nation, and 25.0 total tackles for loss, which is second in the FBS. Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley leads the nation in TFLs through two weeks with 6.0 for a loss of 25 yards. Beasley has an incredible 13.0 TFLs in his last five games combined, including 4.0 in the Orange Bowl victory vs. Clemson. Edge rushers James Pearce Jr. and Tyler Baron are both tied for first in the SEC and third in the FBS in sacks with 3.0. In 28 games under Banks (since start of 2021), the Vols are first in the SEC in tackles for loss with 221.0. They have produced nine double-digit TFL games under his watch, including two straight and three of their last four contests entering this weekend’s SEC opener.
Tennessee’s early offensive success this season can be largely attributed to the rushing attack, which ranks first in the SEC and fourth nationally in yards per game (257.5). The one-two punch of Jaylen Wright (25 carries for 233 yards) and Jabari Small (26 carries for 162 yards) is one of five FBS duos this season to have each recorded at least 25 rushing attempts and 150 rushing yards. The other four schools with such teammates are Jacksonville State, San Jose State, South Florida and UTEP.
September Success Under Heupel
After last Saturday’s victory over Austin Peay, Tennessee has won six straight games in the month of September. In 2022, the Vols secured their first perfect September since 2016, going 4-0 with wins over Ball State, Pitt, Akron and Florida. UT has an 8-2 record during the month of September under Heupel.
Last Time Out
The Vols improved to 2-0 with a 30-13 victory over Austin Peay in their home opener. The Big Orange piled up a Heupel-era high seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss in the win. Beasley was all over the field, tallying nine tackles, two sacks and a career-high five TFLs, which were the most by a Vol in a single game since 2004. Kamal Hadden and Warren Burrell recorded takeaways with an interception and fumble recovery, respectively. After trailing early, UT scored 20 unanswered points en route to Heupel’s 20th victory at the helm of the program.
Florida leads the series, 31-21. Tennessee is seeking to win its second straight against Florida and earn its first win in the Swamp since 2003. Saturday’s contest will mark the final meeting between the two teams as SEC Eastern Division foes with divisional play ending after this season. The Gators lead the all-time series 31-21, but the Vols are coming off a thrilling 38-33 victory last year in Knoxville.
Florida is in its second season under head coach Billy Napier, who led the Gators to a 6-7 record in 2022. UF is off to a 1-1 start this season after a 24-11 road loss at No. 14 Utah to open the year and a 49-7 victory over McNeese last Saturday in Gainesville.
Defense has been the calling card for the Gators so far this season, as they lead the SEC and rank third in the FBS in total defense, allowing just 191.0 yards per game. Sophomore linebacker Shemar James is the team’s leading tackler entering Saturday’s contest with 19 stops and two tackles for loss.
Offensively, Florida boasts a stout rushing attack that features a trio of talented running backs in Montrell Johnson Jr. (18 carries for 125 yards, 2 TDs), Trevor Etienne (18 carries for 109 yards, 1 TD) and Treyaun Webb (15 carries for 74 yards, 2 TDs). Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz has been solid in his first year with the program, completing 74 percent of his passes for 526 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall has been Mertz’s top target with a team-high 14 catches, 215 receiving yards and one touchdown reception.