Tennessee's experienced offensive line is its biggest weapon heading into Saturday's game in Gainesville against Florida. With more than 130 combined starts, it was ranked as the top line in the SEC coming into the season by ESPN.com's Chris Low, ahead of Alabama.
Junior left tackle Antonio Richardson and senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James sandwich redshirt senior left guard Alex Bullard, senior center James Stone and senior right guard Zach Fulton.
Some highlights: Richardson made the 2013 SEC Coaches Preseason First Team All-SEC, and James has started all the games of his college career, joining Fulton on the 2013 SEC Coaches Preseason All-SEC Second Team.
Richardson, James, Stone and Fulton all faced the Gators in the Vols' 37-20 loss last year. In 2012, the left guard slot was held by Dallas Thomas, who is now in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. The crew helped lift RB Rajion Neal to 87 rushing yards on 23 carries and limited UF to one sack.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp discussed Tennessee's O-line in his press conference Monday, saying, "This will be the best offensive line we will face this year. Our guys felt that way last year after we played them." (via GatorZone.com)
Through Week 3 of the season, the O-line has helped propel the Vols to 244.3 rushing yards per game and has allowed two sacks, tied for fewest sacks allowed (0.67 a game) in the SEC.
UF linebacker Michael Taylor, who was once a Tennessee commit before he "found a better school," said the fact UT's O-line is so top-notch just fuels the defense that much more. On Wednesday, Taylor said, "Anytime somebody's labeled with the 'best' something, you want to knock them off of that throne." (via GatorVision)
This season, Florida's defense is definitely equipped with the tools to do so. Taylor is UF's defensive leader with eight tackles. Although the Gators had a bye week in Week 3, their defense has allowed only 208.5 yards so far, making it the third-ranked defense in the country and third in the SEC.
Muschamp discussed his defense's capabilities in his press conference Monday, as well (via GatorZone.com):
...At Florida, the way we play defense here, somebody is going to do something different to you. We expect that instead of being shocked by it. I think we've tackled decently well in the first two games, for the first lead-off games.
UT head coach Butch Jones is also well aware of the Gators' defensive abilities. In his press conference Monday, Jones discussed his offense's keys to success Saturday (via UTSports.com):
We have to establish the line of scrimmage and this week it will be a tremendous challenge with their defensive front. They have a lot of Sunday bodies in their program, a lot of players that will play on Sunday. It will be a good test for us. But we have to do a better job of play-action, run-action, doing different things to alleviate the stress and pressure that we put on our offensive front.
That UF defensive lineman Dominique Easley sings "Rocky Top" to taunt Vols players during these rivalry games certainly won't relieve any stress for Tennessee.
For an SEC matchup that has lost momentum over the years, the battle to watch Saturday is on the line of scrimmage, if anywhere. Given the camaraderie of Tennessee's offensive line and the talent of Florida's defense, the competition there will be fierce.