Florida readies The Swamp for No. 11 Tennessee


No. 11 Tennessee opens Southeastern Conference play on the road Saturday night against a Florida offense that gained nearly 1,100 yards combined in their last two meetings.

Third-year coach Josh Heupel anticipates another tough environment Saturday night when his Volunteers (2-0) seek their first victory over the Gators (1-1) in Gainesville, Fla., since 2003.

“You’re not going to completely tune out the noise,” Heupel said. “Once you get the play call, you’re focusing on your job. It’s 11 guys inside the white lines. I don’t care if it’s at home, on the road, in the backyard, these guys have been doing it for a long time. You do have to control your emotions. You have to be able to execute a play from within yourself. That will be a big part of the football game.”

The last time Tennessee visited the Swamp on Sept. 25, 2021, Florida held the No. 11 ranking and rolled up 505 yards of offense in a 38-14 victory.

The Volunteers answered with a 38-33 win in Knoxville on Sept. 24, 2022, snapping a five-game losing streak in the series that began in 1916 (Florida leads 31-21). This time the Gators gained nearly 600 yards (594) in defeat.

“They have great team speed, athletes that can go make plays in space. You have to bottle up the run game. That’s a huge part of what they do, and it sets up their play-action pass,” Heupel said Monday. “A year ago, they hurt us with some of that. We have to be able to fit the run, play assignment-sound and play the ball well when it’s in the air.”

Tennessee followed up a season-opening 49-13 rout of Virginia with a 30-13 victory over Austin Peay last Saturday, a lackluster decision that saw the Vols slip two spots in the AP Top 25.

Joe Milton III completed 21 of 33 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, but penalties, dropped passes and a Ramel Keyton fumble allowed the Governors to stay within 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Florida had no trouble in last Saturday’s 49-7 home thumping of FCS program McNeese State. Montrell Johnson rushed for 119 of the Gators’ 327 ground yards and scored two touchdowns, with Trevor Etienne adding 84 rushing yards and a TD and Treyaun Webb contributing 71 yards and two scores.

The easy victory erased some of the sting of a season-opening 24-11 setback at then-No. 14 Utah, but second-year Florida coach Billy Napier knows the Volunteers are a different animal.

“It’s a big weekend for Gator Nation,” Napier said Monday. “We play at home. We play a really good opponent. … It’s going to be a really important week. When you play in these types of games, it’s about the preparation during the week, really sticking to your system preparing as an individual player, as a staff member.”

Florida transfer Graham Mertz knows how to prepare for a big game, having quarterbacked Wisconsin against Michigan, Ohio State and the like across three seasons as a Big Ten starter.

Mertz has completed 73.8 percent of his passes this season for 526 yards, two TDs and one interception through two games. Ricky Pearsall is the Gators’ top target with 14 catches for 215 yards and a score. The tandem connected on a 50-yard TD last week.

“I have full trust in him. He has full trust in me,” Pearsall said.

–Field Level Media

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