Here comes the Volunteers’ best opportunity to make their case.
The star power in Tennessee’s game with No. 19 Florida on Saturday is in the trenches instead of at the skill positions. Florida’s defensive line has helped the Gators lead the Southeastern Conference in run defense. They’re matching up against a Tennessee offensive line that ranks among the most experienced in the country.
“If you want to be a good offensive line, that’s (how) you judge yourself, by how you play against great defensive lines,” Tennessee center James Stone said.
During the preseason, Stone and his linemates weren’t shy about saying they wanted to be the top offensive line in the nation. Tennessee returns four starters from a line that allowed only eight sacks last season. The line’s lone non-senior starter is junior left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, a potential first-round draft pick.
So far this season, Tennessee has averaged 5.4 yards per rush while allowing only two sacks. One of those sacks came after Tennessee removed its starters late in a 45-0 victory over Austin Peay.
But the Vols haven’t faced a defensive line as good as Florida’s front.
Senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley, another possible first-round pick, anchors a Florida line that’s as deep and talented as just about any in the country.
“Our goal is not to let an offense score, period,” Easley said. “So once we manage to get that stat, we could say we have one of the best defenses.”
Florida opponents have converted just two of their 24 third-down opportunities. The Gators are allowing 50 yards rushing per game and rank third nationally in run defense. They’re yielding just 3.9 yards per play, a figure that leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally.
That could prove troublesome for a Tennessee offense that lacks playmakers and doesn’t produce many big gains. The Vols’ best plan of attack is to control the clock by running behind its veteran line. Tennessee’s five starting linemen - Richardson, Stone, tackle Ja’Wuan James and guards Alex Bullard and Zach Fulton - have combined for 133 career starts.
“This will be the best offensive line we will face this year,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “Our guys felt that way last year after we played them.”
Florida’s defensive line isn’t as experienced as Tennessee’s offensive line, but it has loads of athleticism. Easley is joined in the starting lineup by junior Leon Orr and sophomores Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. Tennessee also must watch out for linebacker Ronald Powell, who has emerged as one of the Gators’ top pass rushers after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
“I think they’re one of the best in the country,” James said. “They’ve got talent, (they’re) explosive and they have depth.”
James and Co. have something to prove this week. Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney says his linemen still have plenty of room to grow and aren’t as consistent as they need to be.
Although Tennessee rushed for 178 yards last week in a 59-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon, most of that production came in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand. In a 37-20 loss to Florida last year, Tennessee gained just 3 yards per carry.
Now this group has another chance to make a statement. It doesn’t want to let the opportunity slip away.
“It’s something you really look forward to, having matchups like this,” Stone said.