KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Get ready to see one of the hardest-hitting and fast-paced chess matches ever played, because that is what is going to take place on Shields-Watkins Field at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. At least according to Tennessee coordinators Sal Sunseri and Jim Chaney.
As physical as the upcoming showdown between No. 23 Tennessee and No. 18 Florida promises to be, the mental side of the game may very well decide the eventual outcome.
“[Florida] brings a lot of challenges,” Sunseri said. “The bottom line is that they have a lot of good skill players and they are going to try to spread us out on certain situations and see if we can match up with them. Then they are going to come back here and try to pound us so it will be an interesting chess match.”
As his first test as a defensive coordinator in SEC play, Sunseri is excited about the opportunity to match wits with Florida head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
“It is fun,” Sunseri said. It’s intriguing to see how he is going to scheme you, how he looks at your scheme and what they are going to do to attack you to isolate a certain player and all that. You just have to be ready.
“The most important thing about this is not the preparation going into it, it is the game day adjustments. That is what we are going to have to do. We are going to have to make the adjustments at halftime, we are going to have to make the adjustments during in the first series and go out and play ball.”
Like any good chess match, how each side balances its defensive and offensive maneuvers is critical to success. While creating that balance can lead to some difficult decisions, the ultimate goal for both teams on Saturday remains very simple.
“We are trying to go out and play a good Florida team,” Chaney said. “[Our goal is to] execute the offense and hopefully score one more point than they do.”
Fulfilling that goal will not be an easy task though as the Gator defense is one that will certainly present challenges for the Big Orange attack.
“They are a real physical football team that flies around and wants to play an aggressive style of defense,” Chaney said. “I think any good defense is good in all stages and they are very talented in the back half and very talented in the front half. That usually equates to good defense.”
With Saturday’s game set to be televised nationally on ESPN and the College GameDay crew heading to Rocky Top, it has become one of the most highly anticipated throughout Knoxville in recent memory. According to Sunseri, that excitement is of the Vols’ own creation.
“When you get into a game like this, the [players] create the opportunity for themselves,” Sunseri said. “They’ve gone out the last two weeks and the last two stages were big. Every time you go out and win and have success, more opportunities are going to come to you. It’s a plus. People want to see why Tennessee is winning. Whether it is offense, defense or special teams, these kids have earned the right so I’m happy for them.”
DOOLEY DOWNPLAYS 'THE STREAK'
A lot has been made of the Vols' seven-game losing streak to Florida dating to Tennessee's last win in 2004. But head coach Derek Dooley is thinking about the skid as the 2012 version of the third Saturday in September features a new cast of players on both sides.
"We don't really talk about that because the last seven games have nothing to do with what is going to happen this week," said Dooley on the weekly SEC teleconference. "Whether we have won seven or lost seven the only thing that matters is how these teams prepare and focus day in and day out and play in and play out. That is what is going to be the difference in the game, not what has happened historically."
A history of offense hasn't been on the Vols side of late as UT hasn't scored more than 23 points since that dramatic 30-28 win over the Gators at Neyland in '04.
Dooley also pointed out that Florida is one of many rivals for the Vols and that his squad is as focused on this game as any other.
"Tennessee has so many rivals," Dooley said. "When I go around on the Big Orange Caravan, everybody has their team that they want us to beat whether it is Florida or Alabama or Georgia or Vanderbilt or Kentucky. I have just kind of found out in this league they are all rivals, they are all important and they are all big. It is hard to say one is bigger than the other, they all count the same and they will all whip your tail if you are not ready to play."
With ESPN's College GameDay in town there is extra hoopla surrounding the game, yet again, the coach is keeping everything in perspective with an eye on the on-field product. But Dooley can appreciate the impact of having the national showcase on campus.
"It is hard for me to speak on that because we are insulated in preparing for the game as coaches but I am sure the fans are excited and they should be," said Dooley. "We have had a four-year stretch where we haven't performed to Tennessee standards and for the first time we are at least getting talked about. But that excitement isn't going to stay if we don't go out and play well and that is what matters the most."
Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has experience going up against Florida while serving on the staffs at Alabama and LSU. In fact Sunseri is 3-1 all-time against the Gators, with wins in each of his last three meetings against UF while serving on the staff at Alabama (2009-11). The Vols' first-year defensive coordinator has high praise of some of the Gators' top weapons.
Sunseri is impressed with junior running back Mike Gillislee, who leads the SEC with 231 rushing yards and four touchdowns through two weeks.
"He is a very good back," Sunseri said of the Gator back. "He has good quickness, he has great speed and he can be explosive. He's a guy that if you don't hit, squeeze the seams and make sure you condense him, he can hit his seam and take it to the house."
Sunseri spoke of the differences in Florida's run game since Will Muschamp replaced Urban Meyer two seasons ago.
"The run game when the other guy [Meyer] was there was more a lateral-type, across the field, beat you with speed on the edges," said Sunseri. "They still have that capability and all that, but they are trying to run the ball downhill at you and see if are tough enough with powers and counters, they hit you with a rocket sweep. Will seems a little bit of the mentality of a Saban-type where we're going to pound you and wear you down and then every once in a while we are going to fake the pound and hit you with speed on the edge."
One of the other players that Sunseri has been cautioning his defense about is tight end Jordan Reed. The junior leads the Gators' receiving corps with eight catches for 92 yards.
"Jordan Reed is a good football player," said Sunseri. "You have to be aware of where he is at all the time. The bottom line is that he is a dang good football player. He is their leading receiver so you have to know what he is doing, where he is at and what's going on."
TIME TO EXECUTE
Jim Chaney's offense has done a pretty good job in its first two games of 2012.
The team gained 500-plus yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2000 (Arkansas, Kentucky). The 500 yards gained in each of its first two games was also a first in Tennessee football history.
The key to that, according to Chaney, is execution.
"Execution is still the key to any offense," said Chaney. "When you execute a play it is designed to push the ball down the field. When you do it you get there quicker. I think we are doing a good job of that."
The Vols will look to go out there and simply execute Saturday against Florida amidst the excitement of College GameDay and national rankings.
The excitement, however, hasn't changed anything for the team this week, it is just business as usual at practice.
"I think practice has gone good," said Chaney. "We had a good day yesterday with some normal down and distance stuff. We worked on situations today. We have had two good days of practice."
Those two good days of practice will be very important this weekend when the up-tempo Tennessee offense goes against the pressure defense of Florida.
Chaney isn't worried.
"I think the more you do something the better you get at it," said Chaney. "We are playing against press a lot in practice and we should be able to go out and function better against it. That makes sense to me."
Last season against Florida, the Vols threw for 288 yards through the air, but were set back on the ground finishing with -9 rushing yards.
During his weekly teleconference head coach Derek Dooley touched upon that fact.
"Balance is important but the important thing is trying to generate some points," said Dooley. "It is hard to win a game, especially in this league, when you are negative nine yards rushing the ball that is for sure. We have to do a good job of mixing it up but we have to throw and catch pretty good too and at the end of the day we have to score points."
Chaney echoed Dooley's sentiment.
"Statistics are statistics," said Chaney. "The only stat that really matters is the final score and that is what we are looking for."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
“We will find out a little bit more about our team. Obviously we have had a good start but we have done that before and what matters is the consistency that you play with week in and week out and this will be our toughest test of the season so far.”
(On his new coaching staff)
“It is certainly not an ideal situation, but if you start with people who believe what you believe philosophically, they want to be in this kind of environment coaching and they are good people, then it is pretty easy. Obviously a school like this has a lot of interest from a lot of coaches and so I was really fortunate to put the staff together that I did and they have done a remarkable job of making the transition seamless.”
“The guys that I hired didn’t hesitate and I think they had a good understand of where we were but had a belief system of what we were doing and what we were doing the last two years in a positive way and where we are headed. It wasn’t an obstacle at all. If you get focused on the external drama and not on what’s real, it is going to be one, but the coaches that we got didn’t even bat an eye.”
(On Florida’s run game this season as compared to last year)
“It is a little more power style that is for sure and the offensive line is doing a great job of creating seams, the back is a heavy back who is elusive in space. It is a little different, but very effective and more in line with what Will [Muschamp] wants.”
(On Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson)
“I am not sure if they complement each other as much as they are just two really good players on the outside. But they are both big, rangy guys. They are both fast. I would say that Justin is a little more acrobatic and CP has a little more power to him, but it is not like a big guy and a little guy. They both have similar skill sets and some differences as well. They are just two guys that you want on your football team.”
(On Justin Hunter)
“I did see rust, I saw a lot of it, but that doesn’t mean that he was playing bad. Don’t confuse being a little rusty with playing poorly. I still think he has some development to reach his potential as a wide out because he is still young. Even though he is a junior, this is just going to be his fifth career start. You look at some of these guys that have been around and they end their career starting 25 or 30 games. So he is still young from that stand point. As it relates to coverage recognition, route running, separation, those details to be a complete wide out he is still growing.”
(On playing fast and physical)
“That is how we want to play. We want to up the tempo and it is hard to do that if you aren’t hitting them at the line of scrimmage and not generating first downs. We are going to keep trying it this week.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHENEY
(On what the Florida defense changed last week against Texas A&M)
“I didn’t see a tremendous amount of changes, they played solid defense in the second half, but I don’t know if they even played poor defense in the first half. A&M made a few plays on them and they calmed down and played good ball.”
(On the run game)
When I hand it off and you are in the stands and you say, ‘oh that looked ok’, that is pretty much what efficient running means. When you hand it off and it doesn’t look good. That is not efficient. To try and objectively say, you need to have this, you need to have that, we don’t do a lot of that. We just say we ran it ok, or we didn’t run it ok.
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On what the defense has to do to play better early in games)
“Everybody just has to come out and relax a little bit more. Everybody is going to come out and give up some things early, identifying stuff and just relaxing and playing. Every time you play against somebody there is always something new that they are going to do that you have to make an adjustment. Once you settle down, you get better as you go.
(On the defense’s mindset)
“We are playing defense around here. We’re trying to fly to the football and hold the opponents to the least amount of points we can, create turnovers, create opportunities and get off the field on third down. I think they were successful on 4-of-19 so defensively that is 79 percent which is pretty good.”
(On improving defensively)
“The first two games are usually almost like a preseason and you go through it and do stuff. Sometimes you have pretty dang good opponents and sometimes you have opponents you should win [against]. The bottom line is we went into Georgia and did what we had to do. We came back here and did what we had to do. We have another new opponent so we’ll see how we work.”
(On practicing without Curt Maggitt and Herman Lathers)
“When you have two players that are those type of players and you are playing with guys that are usually backups, it is hard. They went out and got experience, they went out there and played, they did a nice job and we won the game so I’m happy.”
(On Texas A&M sacking Florida eight times last week)
“They were rushing the passer pretty darn good. Guys were just getting after it and they had some good coverages. They came with a couple of pressures and they got there. Texas A&M had a good game plan to rush the passer and we have to do the same thing.”
(On the progression of the UT defense)
“We’re getting better at it. Like anything else, it comes down to understanding schemes, where your rush lanes are, what you are doing. We are growing. This defense is growing and trying to get better every single week. It’s not about the opponent or who we are playing, it’s about our standard that we have to have in practice.”
(On whether Daniel McCullers will get more playing time this week)
“It depends on what they are giving us. I can’t tell you if he is or if he isn’t. It just depends on what personnel we are getting.”
(On the play of Dontavis Sapp and Willie Bohannon)
“I’m really pleased with those two guys. They have come out and accepted their roles and have done extremely well. I’m really pleased with those guys.”