Florida Football Three Keys: Tennessee


It is striking how much has changed in just a few weeks for the Florida Gators. After Week 1, they seemed to be a major national player with a chance of making a New Year’s Six bowl – not defeating Georgia, but certainly having a real chance to finish second in the SEC East and win nine or 10 games.

By Matt Zemek

The 29-26 win over Utah showed what this group is capable of. Yet, much as some teams have bad Week 1 games and then spend the rest of the season getting better, some teams have great Week 1 games and spend the rest of the season getting worse. Florida must show that it won’t be that kind of team in 2022. This is a huge early-season test against Tennessee, a measuring-stick game which will likely tell us if the Gators really are a contender in the SEC East, or if that Utah game was an aberration. What adds to the urgency of this game is that it’s a must-win for Josh Heupel and the Vols. If they lose this – with Georgia and Kentucky and Alabama still on the schedule – the Vols will once again fail to play in a top-tier bowl game. They will once again fail to win 10 games. They will once again go through a season without notching a supreme accomplishment, which is driving fans crazy in Knoxville.

Can Florida go into Neyland Stadium and silence over 100,000 fans, winning with a first-year coach after two very poor offensive performances? Doing so would change the trajectory of the season and reestablish the good vibes of the Utah win. An ugly loss, on the other hand, would introduce fresh questions about Billy Napier’s ability to get the most out of Anthony Richardson’s raw but unpolished talents. There’s a lot on the line in this game. Let’s look at the foremost keys:

1 – Anthony Richardson’s yips

It’s not a secret: Richardson has the yips. He is a football version of Rick Ankiel or Chuck Knoblauch right now. One of the things Richardson has mentioned is that with a thin depth chart at quarterback due to injuries behind him, he has changed his approach. Know what? He has to be able to play the way he needs to play. He can’t worry too much about getting injured. If he’s thinking about protecting his body, that’s not a bad thing in itself, but he can’t let that thought overpower every other consideration. Richardson can still play freely while making prudent choices. It doesn’t have to be all of one and none of the other. A balanced view is what Richardson needs, and Napier has to find a way to get that point across.

2 – Big-play receivers

Florida simply must find a way to get its passing game to click. Otherwise, defenses will take away Richardson’s running game and will dare Florida to throw. They will wait for Richardson to make a mistake, which he did often against Kentucky and South Florida. Napier and his staff have to give Richardson a package of pass plays which will build rhythm and confidence and set him up to gradually grow into his role as the team’s starting quarterback. If the passing game doesn’t become a potent part of the offense, defenses will never fear it, and then Florida is going to get squeezed every week in the SEC.

3 – Force Hendon Hooker to be patient

Hooker is richly talented, but if you have seen Tennessee under Heupel and Hooker, you know that if a defense can force Hooker to engineer 12- or 15-play drives, he is likely to make a mistake at some point. The Vols want to hit the big play. Then Hooker doesn’t have to worry about being patient. Tennessee can strike quickly; Florida has to take away the deep ball and make Hooker into an incrementalist. Tennessee will gain lots of yards, but if Florida shuts off the home-run ball and can get some red-zone stops plus a few turnovers, it can keep this UT offense under 30 points and give the Gator offense a fighting chance.

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