Tennessee, Florida meet in key SEC East matchup
Florida lost one home game due to Hurricane Irma.
It won't lose another.
The Gators determined on Tuesday that conditions were safe enough to play their scheduled Southeastern Conference opener against Tennessee on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, which sustained no significant damage during the storm.
The game between the No. 23 Volunteers and the No. 24 Gators will be one of the highlights of the third week of the college football season and figures to be a key contest in the SEC East race.
The Gators (1-0) practiced Tuesday and also got in a practice Sunday morning at their indoor practice facility before Irma passed through Gainesville. The big game is on, with Florida trying to atone for squandering an 18-point, first-half lead before losing 38-28 in Knoxville last season as Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak to its bitter rivals.
The Vols are 2-0 after wins over Georgia Tech (in double overtime) and Indiana State, but there is plenty of room for improvement, coach Butch Jones said.
"We have a lot of work to do with this football team, and that starts with our overall physicality," Jones said. "I didn't think we played to the level of physicality that's up to our standard and expectations."
Florida wasn't all that physical either in its only game, dropping its opener to Michigan 33-17 in Arlington, Texas. The Gators managed to scratch together only 154 total yards, 11 on the ground.
Florida had to cancel its home game against Northern Colorado in advance of the hurricane making landfall in the state and didn't hold its usual media availability early this week.
Last week, senior receiver Brandon Powell tried to sum up the team's mindset after the opening loss.
"We're not worried about anybody but the people on our team," he said. "Everybody is confident. That's all we really care about. Everybody can say what they want to say. It doesn't matter to us."
Quarterback Feleipe Franks will start against Tennessee after an up-and-down debut against Michigan. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound redshirt freshman completed 5 of 9 passes for 75 yards and showed some scrambling ability before being pulled after losing a fumble while going for a first down in the third quarter.
Franks could have more time to throw against a Tennessee defense thas recorded just one sack in its first two games. If he can't do the job, though, coach Jim McElwain could turn to Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire or even part-time 2016 starter Luke Del Rio in a two-minute situation.
Zaire was 9 of 17 for 106 yards in the opener as a replacement for Franks.
"Both guys did some good things and both guys did some things they obviously want back," McElwain said last week.
Meanwhile, Quinten Dormady is emerging as the Vols' full-time quarterback over Jarrett Guarantano. Dormady, a junior, enters the week with a passer rating of 143.7 to go along with 415 passing yards, four touchdowns and an interception. This week marked the first time that both quarterbacks weren't listed as co-starters, with Dormady getting the promotion.
Dormady showed his poise by leading a late 14-point rally against the Yellow Jackets. One of his big-play options has been sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway, who had four catches for 115 yards in that game. Callaway, an athletic 6-foot-2, made a 37-yard touchdown reception against Indiana State. Wideout Josh Smith should play this week after missing the first two games because of injury.
Running back John Kelly, who had 128 yards and four touchdowns in the opener, leads the Tennessee ground game.
Florida gained just 11 yards on 27 carries against the Wolverines, though 55 yards were lost on six sacks.
"I don't think we had very much of a problem in running the ball," senior running back Mark Thompson said. "I just think we have to trust the running game and continue to do it. When something doesn't work, you don't just give up."
Florida, while winning the past two SEC East titles, has been able to rely on its defense. The Gators scored twice on interceptions returns against Michigan -- by senior cornerback Duke Dawson and freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson -- but allowed 433 total yards.
"We had a couple busted coverages back there, but with youth, that happens," senior safety Nick Washington said. "You know, we have to have them grow up. They're not young guys anymore. They've got to come out and make plays."
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