Let's cut the small talk — and we'll get back to other matters including the Fab 4 (plus 1) picks on Thursday. Today, we're unloading the notebook on UT-Florida. Buckle up. And remember Friday's mailbag, we have a spot open.
From the "Talks too much" studios, here we go...
We're in full GameDay mode. ESPN is coming to Knoxville. We're ready. This is how UT football should be, with seasons hanging in the balance and the outcome spanning the full spectrum of possibility: A loss Saturday likely portends mediocrity; a win sets the stage for a potential special ride.
We decided before the week that there was simply no way to do too much on this game. Think of the stakes beyond the regular UT-Florida matters of fan pride.
This is a real SEC game with big-boy SEC stakes and it's really the first one for Derek Dooley, Tyler Bray, Will Muschamp, et al. Being in these kinds of games is the baseline expectation for these programs and the absence of that buzz in recent years is as big a testament to the recent struggles in Knoxville and Gainesville as anything.
This is the chance to see how those three and the countless others stepping into the spotlight for the first time will respond? Our UT ace Downtown Patrick Brown examines Bray's 'laid-back' approach here. And hey, we've never been one to shy away from an opinion, so try this one out: If Bray delivers a big game Saturday, he jumps on to every Heisman list around the country.
This is the chance to move a step ahead in the race back to relevance. One of these teams emerges and takes a gigantic leap closer to the front of the SEC East, the place where these programs expect to roam. The other will talk about how the season is not over and that one game is just one game. They'll be right of course, but we all know that this one game is more than one game regardless of the standings or the score of this one game.
This is a statement. Which team is ready to return? Which team is prepared to take that step? Which team is moving forward and getting better.
And know this in your soul — you either get better or you get worse, you never stay the same.
Here's how we view the Vols offense: Good quarterback who has the skills to be great; improving offensive line; two potentially elite receivers.
Here's how we view the Gatros' defense: Supremely athletic, potentially dominating defensive line, couple of question marks left by injuries to linebackers Ronald Powell and Jelani Jenkins and cornerback Cody Riggs.
Here's how we view the Vols defense: Work in progress with future stars A.J. Johnson and Brian Randolph.
Here's how we view the Gators' offense: Work in progress with star power in Mike Gillislee and potential in Jeff Driskell.
Huge edge in special teams to Florida, which has kicker Caleb Sturgis compared to the Vols looking in frat houses for reliability. And as a father and former frat boy, looking in frat houses for reliability can be a dicey proposition.
So that's the breakdown in broad strokes.
Here are the keys as we see them:
Tyler Bray needs to be elite. And in truth if he is, the Vols win and it likely could get one-sided. If he struggles or does not get anything close to the same amount of time he has enjoyed in the first two weeks of his All-SEC caliber start, then the Vols are cooked. If he's simply good, then we're still talking about it being anyone's game, but the Vols' biggest edge — Bray and the passing game — would not have decided the outcome. That would not be good for the majority of the 865 area code.
Running the ball is nice, but the Vols must stop the run first. Our ace columnist Mark Wiedmer makes a strong case as to why the Vols need to run. He's right of course. But Saturday, the biggest rushing stat for the Vols will be yards allowed rather than yards gained. Sure, UT will need to keep the Gators' front seven honest, but slowing Gillislee is job No. 1.
Play even in the special teams. For some reason, Tennessee has been brutal in the kicking game in recent years. The return game have been improving, especially with the electric skills of Cordarrelle Patterson. The kicking concerns are real and scary. We know this, you know this and Derek Dooley knows this.
(Side note: We still say Cordarrelle Patterson is the second-best name in the SEC behind Barkevious Mingo. That said, parents are going all in when they pick Cordarrelle or Barkevious as a first name, right? Those are names of NFL football players, period. You pick a name like Barkevious, and his future is not going to be in real estate or stocks. "Hi, I'm Barkevious, could I interest you in some insurance plans?")
UT linebackers Herman Lathers, left, and A.J. Johnson line up for a drill before the start of a scrimmage at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, April 14, 2012.Photo by (Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel)
Here are five things we're saying will happen Saturday (hey, book it, we're 7-3 against the number this year):
— Tyler Bray will lead the highlights Sunday morning on the college football recap shows, and by some time next week, Bray will be the No. 2 quarterback on Mel Kiper Jr.'s big board. When Bray lights up a Florida defense filled with NFL speed, he'll inform the nation of what UT fans know: Bray can slap sling a football. Plus, he'll have answered the primary question to which Johnny Vols Fan has wondered for the last two years: Can Tyler Bray win the big one?
— A.J. Johnson delivers. Johnson is arguably the best linebacker to come through Knoxville since Al Wilson, who was a first-rounder. Johnson will have to be the key to slowing the Gators' running game. He will.
— Justin Hunter, welcome to the big time. Again, Johnny Vols Fans have known that Hunter could be special and that his injury in this game last year was crippling to the gameplan and the emotional state of the Vols. The rest of the nation will get a chance to see Hunter's worth Saturday.
— Put in difficult spots, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskell will have a rough day. We believe Driskell will be a very good player in this league and last week's win at Texas A&M was impressive. That said, he is short-staffed on the perimeter and the offensive line is a work in progress in regard to pass protection.
— If it comes down to Caleb Sturgis against who ever is kicking for the Vols this week, there's going to be a lot of angry people leaving Neyland Stadium on Saturday. Here's saying it won't come down to that.
Tennessee 34, Florida 20 (Welcome back to the party Johnny Vols Fans)
This and that
— There are reports out of Nashville that a high school football coach witnessed a former Mississippi State coach give a recruit the infamous $200 handshake. Coach Byron De'Vinner told a talk-radio show that he saw former MSU receivers coach Angelo Mirando hand freshman defensive back Will Redmond the cash. The NCAA has interviewed De'Vinner and is investigating the matter. (Side note: Do you think the NCAA folks sort of fill like a bakery. "No. 43, now serving No. 43... Oh, OK Oregon. What's you're case again?")
— Along those same lines, the NAIA denied former Miami safety Ray-Ray Armstrong eligibility at Faulkner. Yes, the NAIA said no. That's like Britney Spears saying, "No, I can't wear that, it's trashy." Seriously, the NAIA saying no thanks is like someone asking for the dieter's special at Golden Corral. It's shocking and stunning and so puzzling that you think, "Wow, now that's really saying something."
— The Braves lost to Milwaukee again. So did almost every other team in the NL Wildcard race. Wow, these guys are really limping to the finish, no? In fact, we're a couple more muddle days away from the Padres, Brewers and D-Backs being right back in the thick of things.
— Yahoo released the top 20 most popular kids names from the years 1911 and 2011. Interesting data and you can find the complete lists here. William was No. 2 for boys in 1911 and No. 3 in 2011; Elizabeth stood the test of time for the girls, falling from 7th to 11th over the hundred years. We also noticed that Sophia was so popular for girls it's first and 19th as Sofia. It would be really interesting to see how far some of the mid-teen-ranking names from 1911 fell, names such as Ethel, Edna and Gladys or Harold, Albert and Arthur have fallen. Did not see any mentions of Barkevious or Cordarrelle in the top 20 on either list.
— SNL named three new cast members today, welcoming Chicago comedy bigwigs Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson and Cecily Strong to the fold. With Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Eliot on their way out..., wait, what difference does it make? Have you seen SNL in the last five years? It's as funny as a root canal. Wow, we can remember SNL being must-watch TV because of the musical acts, the social influence and the side-splitting comedy. Now, watching it feels like pity somehow.
Who do you like in the UT-Florida game and why?
In fact, let's throw some predictions out there. Does this feel like a contest? Heck yes it does. It's been too long, so let's put this one together on the fly.
Submissions should be as follows: If you think Florida will win by a TD, send us your best guess at the score (Florida 24, Tennessee 17 for example).
The determining factors will be 1) Winning team, 2) score difference — if you are the only one with Florida by seven and the Gators win by seven, you win, 3) Total points — if there are two submissions with Florida by seven we'll add the scores and the closest submission in total points wins, with Price is Right rules of course.
Questions? We'll give the winner some sports tickets down the road or we'll come up with something. Heck, you may even get to appear in the next Prep Football video or something.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...