If you’re a Tennessee fan hurting from the 11-game losing streak against Florida, put yourself in Corey Vereen’s shoes.
UT’s senior defensive end is from Winter Garden, Florida, and he’s 0-for-3 against his buddies back home. That’s not the worst part for Vereen.
“The funny thing is, my girlfriend actually goes to the University of Florida, so I definitely make it a priority to beat them every year,” Vereen says. “And it’s actually very interesting how that happens, so it’s always a priority.”
It gets personal again Saturday at 3:30 ET when No. 14 Tennessee (3-0) plays host to No. 19 Florida (3-0) at Neyland Stadium. CBS will televise the game.
UT is favored to win the SEC East Division, and the Gators are the defending East champions. Last year, the Vols blew a 27-14 lead in the fourth quarter of a 28-27 loss to Florida in Gainesville.
Vereen recalls talking with his girl after the game.
“Man, it was very short, I’ll tell you that, but it’s cool,” he says. “I love her, so it’s all good.”
Tennessee is 3-0 for the first time since 2004, the last year it beat the Gators. UT’s James Wilhoit kicked the winning 50-yard field goal in the closing seconds as the Vols won 30-28 in Neyland Stadium in 2004.
Florida has been the Vols’ greatest nemesis since then. During the losing streak, Tennessee has lost to Florida by one point three times, including the past two years. The Gators won 10-9 in 2014 and 21-20 in 2006, both times in Neyland Stadium.
How bad has it gotten for UT?
Until the Vols beat the Gators, they’ll have to listen to some Florida trash talk.
Florida All-American cornerback Jalen Tabor brought up the Gators’ dominance over UT at least a couple of times in the offseason, including during an August interview on the Paul Finebaum Show.
“There’s just certain things that happen every year, every day,” Tabor said. “Just like you have your show on SEC Network at a certain time every day. Just like the fourth weekend in the fall when the Gators play the University of Tennessee. It’s been the same thing happening for 11 years. I mean, the greatest indication of the future is the past.”
Florida safety Marcell Harris sounded like he read Tabor’s script in an interview after the Gators’ 32-0 victory over North Texas last Saturday.
“Every year, everybody says it’s a rivalry, but we come out every year and we dominate (Tennessee),” Harris said. “We come out with the ‘W.’ Other than that, we play our game and they play our game, but we come out and dominate.”
Vereen has heard the Gators’ chatter.
“Basically, I was aware of it, but we just don’t pay attention,” he says. “We focus on playing winning football.”
Spoken like a true Butch Jones player.
Jones, Tennessee’s fourth-year head coach, said Monday that his team doesn’t need bulletin-board material to get fired up.
“First of all, you shouldn’t need that to motivate you,” Jones added. “If you’re a true competitor, and you have that great competitive grit that we talk about, these are the games you live for. These are the games you want to play in, but when you only have 12 opportunities all year and you’re a great competitor, you’re up for every single game.
“So no, we don’t use that as motivation. I’m just working to get better. It doesn’t do us any good to talk about it. Half these kids have no idea about it, so (freshman cornerback) Baylen Buchanan, he don’t need to know about 11 years.
“All he needs to worry about is getting better and playing a talented group of receivers and a very good offense. That’s what he needs to focus on.
“We can’t have any clutter and distractions. We have to work on being a better football team, and we’re playing the champions of our side, so we have to do everything that we can to prepare. We can’t let our mind take us off. We cannot deviate from that mindset.”
Jones had bigger concerns preparing for Florida. Injuries have taken their toll on the Vols in the first three games.
Preseason All-American cornerback Cam Sutton suffered a fractured ankle during last Saturday’s 28-19 victory over Ohio at Neyland Stadium and is out for an extended period of time.
Buchanan, who played at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Georgia, last year, replaced Sutton against Ohio and is expected to start against the Gators.
Starting linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin suffered a shoulder injury against Ohio, left and didn’t return, but is expected back for Florida. Darrin Kirkland Jr., the other starting linebacker, didn’t play against Ohio due to an ankle injury suffered against Virginia Tech. He won’t play against Florida. Starting defensive end LaTroy Lewis also hurt his ankle against Virginia Tech but is expected to play Saturday.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Quart’e Sapp suffered an ACL injury against Ohio and is out for the season.
Florida coach Jim McElwain won’t be feeling sorry for the Vols, though. He lost his starting quarterback, Luke Del Rio, to a knee injury during last Saturday’s 32-0 win over North Texas.
Tennessee opened as a 10-point favorite to beat the Gators and was a 9-point favorite Monday.
Many think if UT doesn’t end the losing streak to the Gators this year, it never will.
“It’s always brought up,” senior tight end Jason Croom says. “Every year somebody says something about it, but we’re not worried about that. We’re worried about what we can fix this week and what we can do to change that past.”
It’s the start of a four-game stretch that will define UT’s season. The Vols play at Georgia and Texas A&M the next two weeks before facing Alabama Oct. 15 at Neyland Stadium.
3 matchups to watch
UT O-line vs. Florida Front
Here we go again.
Tennessee’s offensive line is in a funk. Its play was spotty in the first two games, and downright bad against Ohio, which had three sacks on Joshua Dobbs and eight tackles for loss.
Through three games, the Vols have allowed seven sacks for a loss of 56 yards and given up 20 tackles for loss for minus-88 yards. And if not for Dobbs’ scrambling, those negative totals would be higher.
Problems started when projected starting right tackle Chance Hall hurt his knee in fall camp and had surgery. He’s back practicing and questionable for Florida. His absence caused shuffling on the line, and it hasn’t worked.
Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond started the first two games before getting benched. Starting center Coleman Thomas started at right tackle against Ohio, and right guard Dylan Wiesman started at center.
Other starters on the line against Ohio were sophomore Jack Jones at right guard, junior Jashon Robertson at right guard, and junior Brett Kendrick at left tackle.
“Just whoever was in there, it just boils down to consistency,” Jones said of the offensive line breakdowns. “We’ll do things right for three plays in a row and have great success, and all of a sudden, it’s one individual and it turns into a negative yardage play or something negative happening, and that’s teamwork. We have to continue to demand execution. It’s discipline and execution, but I saw those individuals making great progress.”
Tennessee’s offensive line improved during the second half of the 2015 season and looked like it might be solid this year. Not so. Robertson is the only starter on the offensive line against Ohio who was playing the same position he played last year (except for Jones, who was a backup).
Florida’s front will be the Vols’ biggest test by far. The Gators had seven sacks against North Texas and they have 16 this season for minus-112 yards. They have 23 tackles for loss totaling minus-127 yards. Redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga leads the Gators with four sacks and four tackles for loss.
Gators’ receivers vs. UT’s new corner
Buchanan will get an early initiation into SEC football on Saturday with the loss of Sutton.
There were comparisons in fall camp between Buchanan’s play as a freshman and Sutton’s play when he was a freshman. But Sutton is a senior and one of the SEC’s best cornerbacks; Buchanan is still a freshman.
After taking over for Sutton, Buchanan had had five tackles (four solo) and a pass breakup against Ohio.
“We need more corners, so Baylen’s going to be in there,” Jones pointed out. “He’s going to have valuable playing time. What I saw is a very poised and mature individual. The situation wasn’t too big for him, and they tried to attack him. They tried to go after him with vertical routes. They tried to go after him with double-move routes and he didn’t blink.
“That’s the exciting thing. Baylen has a very calm demeanor about himself. Not only did he play very well for us at corner, but he was involved in all the special teams and he had his best special team performance that he’s had all year.”
The Gators’ top receiver, Antonio Callaway, was held out of the North Texas game due to a knee injury against Kentucky two weeks ago. Callaway caught 13 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games.
Junior Brandon Powell has 14 catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns, but isn’t the long-ball threat of Callaway. Expect Callaway to play against UT, even if he’s not 100 percent.
“I think Callaway is as good of a receiver as we have in our conference and in the country,” Jones explained. “I think he’s a first-round NFL Draft pick.”
The Gators should and probably will pit their best receivers against Buchanan and see how the true freshman fares.
Dobbs vs. Gators’ ‘D’
UT has won nine consecutive games dating back to the 2015 season, and Dobbs has played a big part in the streak. He’s the key to the Vols offense. It won’t change Saturday.
Dobbs will be facing one of the nation’s top defenses. The Gators lead the nation in points allowed per game (4.7), yards allowed per game (129.7), and sacks (16).
Florida’s defense allowed a school-record 53 yards on 50 plays during 32-0 win over North Texas.
“This is probably the best defense we have faced since I have been here,” Jones said. “They make you earn everything you get. When you hold a football team to 53 yards, I’ve never heard of that before. Again, you talk about doing your job and playing complimentary football, that’s what they’re doing right now. All three opponents, they’ve held under 200 yards.”
5 things to watch
Just when the Gators had gained full confidence in their quarterback, disaster happened last Saturday in the third quarter with Florida leading 19-0. North Texas defensive end Joshua Wheeler hit Del Rio at the knees, and out goes Del Rio. Wheeler was hit with a roughing the passer penalty – little consolation for the Gators.
The hit left McElwain fuming, and he let the North Texas sideline know it. Del Rio’s loss is a blow to the Gators, who will turn to fifth-year graduate transfer Austin Appleby from Purdue as its starter.
Appleby led the Gators to two scoring drives that ended with touchdowns against North Texas, but there’s no doubt the loss of Del Rio is critical heading into Neyland Stadium.
Del Rio, a transfer from Oregon State and son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, was completing 61.4 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions, and averaging 254 passing yards per game.
Appleby has played in two games for Florida and is 2 of 5 passing. In four seasons at Purdue, Appleby played in 17 games with 11 starts. He threw for 2,777 yards with 19 TDs and 19 interceptions.
“There’s no experience like game experience,” Appleby told reporters in Florida after Del Rio was injured. “I’ve played in big stadiums before. It’s not going to be new to me.
“It’s just going to be another week of practice and get ready to play a game. We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity to go play in prime time in a great stadium, in front of a good team and we’ll see where we’re at. We’re excited about it for sure.”
Hurd and Kamara
Tennessee needs to get tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara on the field at the same time, and Saturday would be prime.
Hurd, the former Hendersonville Beech star, is a bruising runner, and the speedy Kamara is a big-play threat as a runner or receiver.
Let’s not forget, Kamara was the Vols’ second-leading pass catcher last year (34 catches for 291 yards) and tied for the team-high in touchdown catches (three).
Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord have used Hurd and Kamara in the same backfield at times, but not often. Instead, UT goes with its traditional set of three wide receivers, a tight end, one running back, the quarterback, and five offensive linemen.
If Kamara goes in motion with Hurd in the backfield, the defense would probably put a linebacker on Kamara – a matchup that favors Tennessee big time.
The Vols’ depth at linebacker was a concern before the season started, and it’s even more of a concern going into the Florida game.
Both of Tennessee’s starting linebackers in the base 4-2-5 defense are hurting. There’s a huge drop-off after Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland Jr.
Junior Colton Jumper, a former walk-on from Chattanooga Baylor, started for Kirkland Jr. against Ohio. Jumper isn’t close to the talent of Kirkland Jr., but Tennessee coaches like his knowledge of the defense and ability to get teammates in position. Junior Cortez McDowell is Reeves-Maybin’s backup with the loss of Sapp.
Florida week isn’t the best time to be short of linebackers.
Tennessee’s margin for error lessens greatly the next four weeks. It can’t afford the gaffes it had the first three games.
Against Ohio, the Vols fumbled five times. Fortunately, they didn’t lose any of them, but they were penalized nine times for 94 yards.
Tennessee fumbled four times in the opener against Appalachian State and lost only one.
Remember how the Vols won 20-13 in overtime? Hurd recovered Dobbs’ fumble in the end zone when Dobbs was hit in the midsection while diving over the goal line. And the Vols were penalized six times for 55 yards.
In the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech, Tennessee was penalized six times for 60 yards. The Vols only fumbled twice, recovered them both, and recovered all five of the Hokies’ fumbles, turning three of them into 21 points.
“We have to get better in a hurry in the small details,” Jones said. “The exciting thing is it’s all correctable, but it’s everyone in our football family starting with me, the coaches, the players taking ownership, owning it, and having the discipline to execute. We have to value the football.
“We can’t be a team that hurts itself.”
Gators’ run game
Florida has rushed for 606 yards in its first three games and likely will try to establish a run game to help Appleby settle into the environment at Neyland Stadium.
The Gators are averaging 5.0 yards per carry led by 5-10, 213-pound sophomore Jordan Scarlett with 175 yards and two touchdowns (5.3 yards per carry).
Junior college transfer Mark Thompson (6-2, 237) has rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and true freshman Lamical Perine has rushed for 161 yards and one touchdown with a 5.6-yard average.
“Offensively, they play with a physical style of play,” Jones added. “Sometimes their run game, it’s a fist fight in a phone booth. They’re big, they’re physical up front, they play three running backs and they’re going to get after it.
“They do a great job of involving their tight ends, their receivers, and their running backs in the play action game.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.