Tennessee head coach Butch Jones watches his team warm up before an NCAA college football game against Western Kentucky on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Saturday that his team was facing the most difficult schedule “in the history of college football.”
That may be a bit of hyperbole, as it’s unlikely that someone has calculated schedule strength over the past 100 or more seasons.
But there are points at which the Vols’ 2013 schedule is especially cruel. This week is one of them.
Seven days after being trounced by No. 2 Oregon at one of the nation’s toughest venues, the Vols will travel to Florida, where a completely different type of team, but an equally tough venue awaits.
Tennessee (2-1) will open the SEC season at No. 19 Florida (1-1) on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.).
If there’s good news for the Vols after Saturday’s history-making blowout in Eugene, it’s that they’re unlikely to see a team like Oregon again this year. Texas A&M, perhaps the SEC team that is closest to Oregon in offensive firepower, isn’t on Tennessee’s schedule this year.
But the Gators, who started the season with high expectations but have limped through the first two games, offer their own set of challenges. Florida’s offense is still finding its footing, but its defense appears every bit as punishing as it was a year ago.
“Florida is not going to feel sorry for us,” Jones said. “It’s going to take perseverance and it’s going to take resilience. We have to learn from (the Oregon loss) and we have to move forward.”
The Gators had an uninspiring opening victory against Toledo, but held the Rockets to two field goals. At Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 7, the Hurricanes managed only 212 yards of total offense but took advantage of five Florida turnovers to win the game.
That means reviving UT’s moribund offense will be the most important job this week if the Vols hope to pull an upset in Gainesville. Early lines listed Florida as 14- or 15-point favorites.
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley (35-for-57, 372 yards, five touchdowns, one interception) hasn’t found a rhythm in the first three games. Backup Nathan Peterman entered the game in the second half against Oregon, but by then the game was well out of reach.
True freshmen quarterbacks Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs have yet to make their debuts, and it’s unclear if coaches would want to throw either of them into the fire against Florida’s tough defense.
If, as it appears likely, Worley is the Vols’ best option and will remain as starter, he’ll need more help from his receiving corps.
Injuries to slot receivers Devrin Young, Alton “Pig’ Howard and Johnathon Johnson have diminished the unit’s speed, and young practice standouts Marquez North and Jason Croom have struggled to find consistency.
Jones was also concerned about the running game, which didn’t push its average over about four yards per carry until garbage time at Oregon.
“I thought Oregon did a great job at the line of scrimmage,” Jones said. “We pride ourselves on being a physical blue collar football team and I thought they won the line of scrimmage battle. That can’t happen.”