No. 6 Florida and Tennessee are set to square off for the 50th time in a series usually simply called the “Third Saturday in September,” and the Southeastern Conference rivals are trending in opposite directions.
On Saturday afternoon at legendary Neyland Stadium, the visiting Gators (7-1, 7-1 SEC) — winners of five straight since losing to Texas A&M — can clinch the SEC East with a victory against the Volunteers or a Georgia loss against winless Vanderbilt.
A division title would be the Gators’ first since 2016, which would send them to Atlanta on Dec. 19 for the SEC Championship Game, likely against undefeated and top-ranked Alabama.
Meanwhile, the Volunteers (2-5, 2-5 SEC) — who have dropped 14 of their last 15 contests against Florida — are mired in the division’s basement below three-win Kentucky but ahead of South Carolina (2-7, 2-7 SEC) and Vanderbilt (0-8, 0-8 SEC).
That could spell a big advantage for the Gators, who hold a 29-20 edge in the rivalry.
The news for coach Dan Mullen’s team became even better when Kyle Pitts returned and made major contributions in Saturday’s 34-10 home win over Kentucky.
Kyle Trask’s go-to target during the quarterback’s 34-touchdown campaign so far, Pitts responded by hauling in three touchdown passes from Trask in a game Florida trailed 10-7 late in the first half.
Pitts caught five passes for a game-high 99 yards and increased his touchdown total to 11 on 29 receptions (513 yards, 17.7 yards per catch) after missing previous games against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
“I was real jittery,” said Pitts, the leading candidate for the Mackey Award as the game’s top tight end. “Because, not playing for two weeks, my chest kind of got hot and my heart beat fast so … I was a little nervous at first.”
Things aren’t so good on Rocky Top, where a nasty, five-game losing streak has criticism reaching a peak as high as the nearby Smoky Mountains.
Tennessee’s biggest hurdle continues to be at quarterback, where Jarrett Guarantano (103-for-166 passing, 1,112 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs) has been wildly inconsistent. The team also has been outscored 108-14 in the second halves of the last five games.
Against Auburn, Guarantano led the Vols to a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, but the senior signal-caller was largely ineffective the rest of the way in the 30-17 loss. He made matters worse when he tossed a 100-yard pick-six to the Tigers’ Smoke Monday.
Highly regarded freshman Harrison Bailey replaced Guarantano and went 7-for-10 passing for 86 yards and led the Vols to their final touchdown.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday that two players are COVID-19 positive from the Nov. 17 game in Auburn, and contact tracing has put up to 16 players in quarantine — including one quarterback that remained unnamed by the third-year coach.
That means either Guarantano, Bailey, J.T. Shrout or Brian Maurer will likely be unavailable Saturday.
With Tennessee’s season spinning toward its end, the time could be right for Bailey, a four-star prospect from Marietta, Ga., to make his first career start in place of the senior Guarantano.
In fact, starting wide receiver Josh Palmer may have provided a hint in Tuesday’s media session.
“He’s calm and cool and collected,” Palmer said of the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Bailey. “I feel like we have a really good game plan for him.”
–Field Level Media