Tennessee (2-1) at No. 19 Florida (1-1)
Saturday, 3:30 PM EST, CBS
Line: Florida -14.5
The first year of the SEC Championship Game was 1992. From 1992 to 2001, the only two SEC East teams who went to the SEC Championship Game were Florida and Tennessee. During that time, these two schools combined for seven SEC Championships. More recently, from 2006 to 2009 these two teams once again dominated the SEC East with Florida winning two conference Championships and the Gators and the Vols representing the East every year over that four year span. Over the last three years there has been a changing of the guard as Georgia and South Carolina have supplanted Florida and Tennessee as the schools to beat in the SEC East.
Both schools have had recent coaching changes. Since 2008, the Vols have had four different head coaches (five if you count Jim Chaney's interim status in 2012). Butch Jones has now taken over the program but he's still rebuilding from the rubble of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Will Muschamp took over a program that was in much better shape but was ran more like a wild west town. Muschamp's Gators only lost two games last season but have already dropped one to in-state rival Miami (FL) this season. The Vols are coming off an expected, but embarrassing, loss last week at Oregon.
These two teams were once the teams to beat in the SEC but they are now in the middle looking up at the likes of the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks. The winner of this game puts themselves in good shape to contend for a conference championship this season and in the future. Who will step up on Saturday?
For Florida to win: For the Gators, it's all about winning the turnover battle and not shooting themselves in the foot. Under Muschamp, the Gators have lost nine games. In those nine games, the Gators have lost the turnover battle every single time. In those losses, the Gators have lost the turnover margin by 2.1 turnovers per game. If the Gators can keep from self-destructing, they should win this game.
For Tennessee to win: Tennessee needs to find balance on offense. We all knew that the Vols passing game would suffer this year after losing Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Mychal Rivera and Zach Rogers. In the first three games, the Vols have passed for just 137 yards per game. To put it in perspective, that's less per game than Georgia Tech and Navy. Since going 11 for 13 against lowly Austin Peay, QB Justin Worley is completing just 54.5% of his passes. To beat the Gators, the Vols have to move the sticks through the air and on the ground.
Key Player (Florida): Now a Junior, Jeff Driskel is still waiting for his breakout performance. Through two games he has completed 70% of his passes but that stat doesn't tell the whole story. Driskel and the Gators lost five turnovers in their loss to the Hurricanes and looked out of sorts. Driskel needs to stay within himself in this game and do what he does best, which is run the football and look for his spots in the mid-range passing game once he draws the defense in. There is as much pressure on Offensive Coordinator Brent Peace as there is on Driskel. After Muschamp made the decision to go with Driskel over Jacoby Brissett (now red-shirting at NC State), Peace has never seemed to be comfortable calling plays with Driskel under center unless the running backs are having success. Everybody will be watching Driskel, but keep an eye on the play calling. Peace needs to put together a game plan that gives his QB confidence early in this game. Another thing to watch is that Driskel is nursing a knee sprain, so his mobility could be limited.
Key Players (Tennessee): The Vols returned just 16.5% of their total WR receptions from 2012. That's a lot to lose and so far this unit is still looking for it's identity. In 2012, Justin Hunter averaged 6.1 receptions per game, Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 3.8 and TE Mychal Rivera averaged 3.0. The leader on the Vols so far this year, freshman Marquez North, is averaging just 2.7 and had just 3 receptions for 9 yards against Oregon. Somebody needs to step up in the Vols receiver corps and help Justin Worley make plays.
Key Stats: Florida has won eight straight games in this series. The last time the Vols won in Gainesville, was 2003.