- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Will Muschamp assures Florida hasn’t held anything back.
No matter how many times the question arises about how vanilla his team has been through the first two weeks, the normal responses have centered on taking what opponents give them.
Whether what is coming out of Florida’s camp is totally true is up for debate, but Florida’s first-year coach vows he isn’t saving anything for Saturday’s showdown with East rival Tennessee -- a game that could go a long way in determining the divisional race at the end of the season.
“We don’t go into a game holding stuff for another opponent,” Muschamp said. “I guess some people do that. I don’t. We prepare to win the game and we prepare to take the things we’ve got to do to win the game. Now, whether or not we call them in the game depends on the situation of the game.”
So the Gators aren’t purposely shrouding their schemes in mystery; they just haven’t needed to show off the entire playbook, because they haven’t been forced to.
Fair enough, but you have to wonder what the Gators might bring out Saturday.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, a longtime friend of Muschamp’s since their days as assistants under Nick Saban at LSU, said he expected to see a vanilla Florida team in the first two weeks, but thinks his team hasn’t “seen near what we might see on Saturday.”
Mentally, Florida might have some of the edge, with six straight wins over the Vols under their belts, but less is known about these Gators.
We know Tennessee’s offense can fly behind Tyler Bray’s arm and his league-high 349 passing yards a game and SEC-leading seven touchdowns. Making things easier for Bray have been receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, who have combined for 31 receptions for 502 yards and five touchdowns.
We also know that while Tennessee’s defense is young, it has exceeded early expectations, especially after holding Cincinnati’s high-powered offense to 396 yards.
As for Florida, its defense has been much more aggressive, but hasn’t met much competition. Offensively, quarterback John Brantley looks more comfortable, but his numbers are pedestrian (he’s averaging 212 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions).
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said Brantley’s numbers aren’t so much a result of a vanilla offense; it has had to do more with -- you guessed it -- taking what the defenses have given him. Dump-offs to running backs and the lack of a vertical passing game have come because the opportunities to stretch the field have been limited.
“All quarterbacks want to throw the ball down the field,” Weis said. “But to have the patience to not throw it down the field when the defense is saying, 'Go ahead, we’ll give you this, but we won’t give you that,' that’s a very strong positive.”
Where the Gators have been explosive is in the running game. Florida ranks second in the SEC, churning out 248.5 rushing yards per game. Those impressive rushing numbers are a result of better perimeter blocking, more emphasis on a power running game and the evasive moves of Chris Rainey.
The fifth-year senior, who spent the better part of last season mired in controversy, has been the Gators’ best offensive player, rushing for 198 yards, posting 110 receiving yards and scoring four total touchdowns.
After that, Florida’s offense is still a mystery. Given the chance, will Florida air it out? And if so, to whom? Can Rainey carry the load against SEC talent? Will speedster Jeff Demps be healthy? Will this young offensive line hold up?
Defensively, the Gators have crushed their lesser opponents. Florida has allowed just a field goal and 349 total yards. But faced with a passing game like Tennessee’s, how will the Gators react, especially with top cornerback Jeremy Brown questionable with a knee injury and youngsters roaming around the secondary?
Florida will have to generate a stronger pass rush, and the return of defensive end Sharrif Floyd, who was ruled ineligible for the first two games, should help.
When Dooley looks at Florida’s defensive line, he can’t help but feel a little apprehensive.
“The first thing you notice on defense is probably the most talented defensive line in the country -- extremely big and athletic and disruptive and almost impossible to block,” he said. “If your five can’t block their four, it doesn’t matter what plays you have, it’s going to be a long day.”
Junior linebacker Jon Bostic said he doesn’t expect much to change in the Gators’ approach. As much as people harp on it, he assures Florida doesn’t have a bag of tricks ready for the Vols.
“We’ve opened up a lot of things. We really haven’t tried to hide anything,” Bostic said. “The offense may have some wrinkles, I don’t know. We already know the defensive game plan and we have different adjustments every week.”
What is known is that this weekend’s game is big -- huge, even. Making the offense prettier or adding more blitz packages won’t change that.
“It’s a great rivalry. It’s in the SEC East, and it’s a game we need to play well in, and win,” Muschamp said. “It’s a very important game; we don’t need to tell our players that. They come to play at a place like Florida to play in a game like this.”
2hMark Schlabach and Sharon Katz