Editorial Section: Florida and Tennessee

SEC Media Days are over. It’s time to take stock of the league with a couple of Friday roundtables. Check out a coach-centric Arkansas and Auburn roundtable here. Also see contributor Kevin Causey’s “Flashback Friday” post on the first SEC Championship Game from 1992.

1. Which team is more likely to bounce back with a bowl appearance this season: Tennessee or Florida?

Matt Zemek:
On Twitter @SectionMZ

Whenever this kind of question is asked, it’s important to make the distinction up front: Is this more a vote against one team, or is it a true endorsement of the other?

This is more a vote against Tennessee, for reasons that will be explained shortly. It’s hard to be too enthusiastic about Florida this season, but compared to the Volunteers, the Gators should fare slightly better. Florida is more likely to return to a bowl game than the Children of the Checkerboard.

Bart Doan:
On Twitter @TheCoachBart

Not to go all negative, but this is like setting up a grip of Dark Eyes and one of Skol and asking which one you plan on finishing tonight. Neither inspires a ton of confidence, probably more because of what’s around them as much as anything.

Tennessee’s schedule is just hateful, with non-conference games against mid-major powers Utah State and Arkansas State plus a trip to Oklahoma. That’ll put hair on your chest quick, fast, and in a hurry.

Couple that with the fact that Tennessee is looking at replacing six of its front seven, plus all of the youth and inexperience at basically “everywhere,” and it portends to a 5-7-ish season. The silver lining is that Butch Jones is a heck of a coach, and the Vols probably were more competitive in certain spots last year than they should have been.

As for Florida, the Gators’ non-conference slate is much more margarita mix than it is tequila, so assuming chalk and a loss to Florida State, 3-1 is almost automatic (must … avoid … GSU … comment).

Their defense returns 10 starters and was damn good last year anyway, so it won’t take much more than an occasionally sober offense to get wins for the Gators … issue is, that was the same story as last year.

But in the end, they have more experience, a much easier schedule across the board, and it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect 7 to 8 wins out of them. In said example, grab the Dark Eyes.

Terry Johnson:
On Twitter @SectionTPJ

As I mentioned in my article Wednesday, Florida was one of five teams with a losing record in 2013 that will end up going to a bowl game in 2014. Go ahead and put the Gators in a New Year’s Day bowl, and hand the Frank Broyles Award to new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

2. Florida’s biggest concern: its coach, its quarterback, or its schedule?

Bart Doan:

The schedule isn’t really that bad. So let’s throw that bag out in the quarry and drive off right now. Yes, anything that has “@ Alabama” and “@ Florida State” on it looks salty, but you don’t get additional losses on the schedule for being paddled by 25.

One could opine that for the present, quarterback is the most glaring issue this season in spite of Vernon Hargreaves III calling Jeff Driskel the best QB in college football. That reeks of telling your girlfriend in high school that she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. It’s a bold-faced lie, but just something you say because the other side will buy it enough.

So it comes down to the coach, Will Muschamp. (Stop exhaling so hard, Texas. It’s throwing off my typing ability.) Muschamp is 22-16 at Florida, and I think everyone knows it needs to be better. The scapegoat game is played out with Brent Pease gone. This is how the cycle goes … coach starts getting blame, assistants lose jobs, coach still loses, coach goes.

The cycle never changes. But Muschamp is removed from an impressive to the untrained eye 11-2 season two years ago (really weak schedule) sandwiched in between two seasons that absolutely won’t cut it at Florida.

More than anything, in that fateful Sugar Bowl game to end 11-2 against Louisville, the team seemed to lack discipline and the ability to rein itself in. Last year was basically a full season of a lack of discipline. I don’t have anything against Will Muschamp, but I’m not sure he’s the answer. Another soft-ish schedule could get him 8 wins though, which would be enough in theory.

Terry Johnson:

I can’t believe that it’s July 18th, and this will be my first “not so fast, my friend” to Bart.

But that’s the case here. Florida’s schedule is its biggest problem this year.

As I’ve said throughout the preseason, the Gators won’t have any trouble at the quarterback position. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is an excellent teacher, and will have each of his signal callers prepared for the upcoming season. He’s also got an extremely deep playbook, and knows how to adapt his scheme to the players he has available, something he did with great success at Duke with the different skill sets of Thaddeus Lewis, Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone, and Brandon Connette.

I also don’t think that coaching is a problem for Florida. Sure, Muschamp is a young coach, but the fact that he’s willing to go out and bring in a subject-matter expert like Roper shows that he’s learned quite a bit during his time in Gainesville. As long as he doesn’t micromanage the offense (see: Utah Utes), things should be just fine.

On the other hand, the schedule is an absolute nightmare, and will rank as one of the toughest in the nation. In all, the Gators play five opponents that will likely start the season in the top 15, with three such encounters taking place away from the Swamp.

If that doesn’t qualify as a big problem, I don’t know what does!

Matt Zemek:

Some people think Will Muschamp is in over his head. This season should do a lot to answer that question one way or the other.

Florida’s schedule is pretty nasty, too, with Alabama, LSU, and Florida State being three opponents that aren’t even in the Gators’ SEC East path. Assuming that this team loses to the Tide, Tigers and Seminoles, Florida will have to win at least one game against the Georgia-Missouri-South Carolina trio if it wants to have a winning record (7-5). The Gators play three non-conference cupcakes (Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky), so in essence, their season boils down to nine games. It will take a lot of work just to win five of them. The coach and the schedule are legitimate points of concern.

Yet, Florida’s task this season is ultimately made difficult by its quarterback more than anyone — or anything — else. What has Jeff Driskel done to suggest that he can capably and consistently throw the ball for a full season while avoiding turnovers? Brent Pease did not work out as the Gators’ offensive coordinator, but let’s realize for a moment that Pease was a part of a very successful coaching staff at Boise State under Chris Petersen. Pease obviously deserves a lot of blame for how Florida faltered last season. Yet, did Kellen Moore’s former coach suddenly forget how to tutor a quarterback? Maybe so… but the burden of proof would seem to fall on Driskel’s shoulders at this point. If Kurt Roper brings him along in one year, one can reasonably conclude that the switch of coordinators was an inspired move by Muschamp… and that Driskel had a lot more talent than the past few seasons have indicated.


3. Tennessee’s biggest concern: its line play, relative youth, or its schedule?

Referring to Tennessee's lack of returning starters along its defensive line, Student Section co-editor Bart Doan flatly says, "In the SEC, that dog won't hunt." Sorry, Smokey. We still love ya, though. (Insert sad-face emoticon here.)

Referring to the lack of returning starters on Tennessee’s defensive line, Student Section co-editor Bart Doan flatly says, “In the SEC, that dog don’t hunt.” Sorry, Smokey. We still love ya, though. The checkerboard always looks good on you, too. (Insert sad-face emoticon here.)

Terry Johnson

Line play will be the biggest issue facing the Volunteers this fall.

That’s not to say that the schedule won’t be a problem. The Vols have a couple of tougher-than-they-look non-conference games against Utah State and Arkansas State, followed by a trip to Oklahoma. They also draw Alabama and Ole Miss from the West, capping off a brutal slate that includes nine teams that played in a bowl game last season.

By the same token, youth will also bring its own set of challenges. Tennessee returns just 10 starters from last year’s 5-7 squad, the second lowest total in the SEC. Until some of their talented youngsters get their feet wet, the Volunteers will be at a decided disadvantage against their more experienced counterparts, who have already adjusted to the speed and physicality of the college game.

However, play in the trenches is the biggest obstacle facing UT this fall. After all, you can’t win consistently in the SEC without playing a physical style of football. While inexperience will cause trouble for the entire team this fall, it’s a huge problem for the offensive and defensive lines, which return a grand total of zero starters from a year ago. They’ll need to find some new starters right away, or they’ll end up missing a bowl for the fourth straight season.

Matt Zemek:

Line play in the SEC, the land of the fast defensive lineman, is so overwhelmingly important. Tennessee’s lack of experience on the offensive line is likely to catch up with the Vols at some point. Yet, as much as line play will hurt Tennessee this fall, the schedule is the number one reason this team can’t expect to make a bowl. A 6-6 season would be a strong achievement against this collection of opponents.

Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss, and South Carolina are all road games. Alabama is a home game. That’s five losses. The Vols would need to go 6-1 in their other seven games to go bowling. They would have to split a Missouri (home)-Vanderbilt (road) pair just to stay in the bowl conversation. The Utah State opener is a must-win. There’s just no breathing room for this team all season long.

Bart Doan:

Since 2008, Tennessee has the second worst overall record of anyone in the SEC (way to clean up that floor, Kentucky), so whatever ails Tennessee has been habitual it seems.

Youth is a double-edged sword. The Vols played a ton of freshmen last year and figure to have that number in the teens again this year on the two-deep. On the upside, they’ve recruited well. On the downside, that’s a lot of freshmen for a team coming off of a 5-7 season.

Youth isn’t an issue or an excuse though. And I refuse to throw Tennessee under the bus for playing competitive out of conference schedules. That’s manly, and we don’t hate on manly in this space. That’s shaving with a rusty razor because it’s all you have. It’s getting up at 7 a.m. and seeing a half-drank can of Icehouse and finishing it off because you can’t stand to waste a brew.

I don’t know that it’s singularly line play, either. It’s an amalgam of things. Tennessee hasn’t had really elite quarterback play in quite some time, and that doesn’t figure to change. College football still has an element of “give it to your best guy and watch him do stuff” that high school ball has but the NFL does not.

Tennessee just hasn’t had a lot of “those guys” recently. It feels the days of UT being loaded at the skill positions are long gone. Now, they do replace a TON on the defensive line. In the SEC, that dog don’t hunt.

It figures to be more of the same in Knoxville, but give Butch Jones time and things will turn around. I don’t think you felt the same during the Lane Kiffin (briefly) or Derek Dooley regimes.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.