For a team which hasn’t yet lost a game this season, the Tennessee Volunteers are nevertheless in a must-win spot against Florida.
By Matt Zemek
Wait a minute, you might say. How can a 3-0 team be in must-win territory heading into Week 4? Josh Heupel is only in his second season on the job. The Vols will have bigger opportunities later in the season. Losing one game does not knock UT out of a big bowl slot. The Vols would have to lose three times for that to happen.
Okay, let’s lay out the argument for why this is a must-win game in Knoxville: First, Tennessee has to play Alabama and Georgia later in the season. Dropping a game as an 11-point favorite at home to Florida would obviously set up the Vols for a three-loss season, if not more. The expectation among Vol fans this year is for nine wins at minimum, ideally 10. UT cannot lose to Florida if it wants to reach the minimum goal and have a shot at a bigger goal. Playing in a prestigious bowl game absolutely requires success here versus Florida. Tennessee has struggled against the Gators in recent years. Beyond the particulars of 2022, a loss here would be traumatic on a larger historical level.
Yes, this is a must-win game. Let’s see what the Vols have to do to get the job done.
1 – Make Anthony Richardson throw down the field to win
You can see what Kentucky and South Florida did. They took away Anthony Richardson as a runner and dared him to throw. Richardson looked nothing like the man who ran through Utah’s defense in Week 1. This is a very different and highly diminished version of the man who looked like a Heisman candidate in the season opener against the Pac-12 champions. Tennessee needs to make sure that Richardson doesn’t find running lanes and is unable to scramble for first downs on 3rd and 5 or 3rd and 8. Richardson has not established a strong rapport with most of his receivers. Enabling Richardson to run for big plays would be catastrophic for UT’s defense. It’s by far the defense’s biggest concern heading into this contest.
2 – Play this game from the outside in
Florida’s defense was gassed in the second half of the Utah game. The Utes threw the ball in the first half and moved the Gators around the field. In the second half, the Utes pounded the rock and wore down the Gators, who had to account for the whole field in the early stages of the game but were then sledgehammered after halftime. That’s a good template for what Tennessee must achieve. The Vols have the speed to make Florida account for every part of the field on defense, but they can also use the tempo of their offense to physically grind down Florida’s front seven. Starting with a speed-based offense, connected to distributing the ball to receivers on the edges in open space, and then hammering the ball between the tackles in the second half, represents the right sequencing for UT in this game. It’s not so much about throwing to set up the run, but playing the game on the outside first and then going inside, between the tackles.
3 – Hendon Hooker decision making
Hooker is very talented, but we have seen him make the wrong reads on many occasions, often when keeping the ball on a read option play instead of handing the ball off or pitching. Is Hooker ready to make better choices? If he is, UT will take a big step toward securing this victory.