Gene Frenette: With QB Richardson off his game, Vols have great chance to stop Gators' torture

·8 min read
With Anthony Richardson (15) looking awfully shaky the past two games, Florida coach Billy Napier (R) needs his quarterback to bounce back in his first road start Saturday  in a tough environment at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.
With Anthony Richardson (15) looking awfully shaky the past two games, Florida coach Billy Napier (R) needs his quarterback to bounce back in his first road start Saturday in a tough environment at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

Unless Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson quickly morphs back into Superman, after seemingly being infested with kryptonite the past two games, then Tennessee has a great chance to expunge decades of torment by the Gators on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

It’s almost inconceivable that UF could be a 10.5-point underdog to the Volunteers, a respectable SEC opponent the Gators have beaten 16 of the last 17 years, the lone win being at Tennessee in 2016.

UT has never been more than a 5-point favorite in the 50 years since odds were posted on this series, but Florida looks way too vulnerable on both sides of the ball.

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The Vols’ expectations have risen dramatically since last year’s 38-14 loss to UF in Gainesville, mainly because Josh Heupel’s offense has lit up opponents for an average of 43.7 points in 12 games since then.

Meanwhile, the Gators’ defense is terribly suspect against the run (195.3 yards, No. 113 ranking), especially without linebacker Ventrell Miller.

More concerning is Richardson has looked totally lost the past two weeks. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season and his completion percentage (.532) is 111th in the country.

This is a bit of a crossroads game for Florida. With limited options at quarterback, the Gators will be in for a long season if Richardson can’t snap out of his funk.

About the only thing the Gators have going for them is the burden for winning is all on the Volunteers. They simply can’t lose this game with so much momentum building in Heupel’s second season, along with Richardson making the first road start of his career in such a hostile environment of over 101,000 spectators.

Not since 1986 has a Florida coach lost the first two SEC games of any season (Galen Hall started 0-3), but it’s hard to see first-year boss Billy Napier avoiding that dishonor based on how the Gators performed in almost losing to mediocre South Florida and falling at home to Kentucky.

By no means is this a statement game for UF, which doesn’t deserve its No. 20 ranking. Not with Napier just starting to restore a program that went sideways the last three months of the Dan Mullen regime.

This matchup will go a long way toward deciding the SEC East pecking order behind highly-favored Georgia, but it doesn’t change the fact the stakes are much higher for No. 12-ranked Tennessee.

This is a UT redemption game, a chance to reverse an alarming trend of going 3-19 against ranked opponents the last five years, losing 15 of those games by at least 20 points.

Rocky Top is stoked for ESPN’s College GameDay environment and celebrating a win over its big nemesis. It’s hard to assess the damage to Tennessee’s psyche if the Vols blow this opportunity.

Jaguars’ takeaway flip

The Jaguars’ reversal in their turnover ratio so far has a chance to be historic, providing the defense can keep getting takeaways and a Trevor Lawrence-led offense avoids the turnover bug that helped sabotage last season.

A franchise-record 29 turnovers in 2021 tied for the league’s most giveaways, leading to a minus-20 turnover ratio that was a league-worst by an incredible margin of seven over three other teams (Carolina, Chicago, New York Jets).

Through two games this season, thanks to a defense getting six takeaways, the Jaguars are winning big in the turnover department with a plus-5 margin that leads the NFL.

If the Jaguars continue that trend and finish No. 1, it’d be the best jump in turnover margin since the Kansas City Chiefs tied for last with the Philadelphia Eagles at minus-24 in 2012, then jumped to second in coach Andy Reid’s first season the following year at plus-18.

Emergency special-teams volunteers

The team-first culture permeating through the Jaguars’ locker room under Doug Pederson isn’t some obligatory narrative.  Nobody sees a greater example of that than special-teams coach Heath Farwell.

While he gets multiple practice-squad players each week asking what they have to do to get elevated to the 53-man roster — obviously meaning a bigger paycheck for them — Farwell also loves having front-line starters in linebacker Foye Oluokun, tight end Evan Engram and cornerback Tyson Campbell willing to be pinch-hitters if the Jaguars need emergency fill-ins on the return or coverage teams.

Oluokun actually relishes the opportunity to play guard or another line position on special teams, so he sits in on meetings with that group just in case he’s needed.

“I’m not too big for anything,” said Oluokun.

Engram is willing to play second level on kickoff return. “I’d love to be a gunner [on punt coverage], but I don’t think they’ll let me do that,” he said. Campbell is game for being a gunner or a safety valve on kickoff coverage.

Tate turned out great

When Florida State was forced to insert backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker in the second quarter against Louisville last week after starter Jordan Travis got hurt, his first four dropbacks resulted in incomplete pass, completion for minus-6 yards, sack/intentional grounding and an interception.

Florida State quarterback Tate Rodemaker (18) looks for a receiver during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Louisville in Louisville, Ky., Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Florida State won 35-31. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Florida State quarterback Tate Rodemaker (18) looks for a receiver during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Louisville in Louisville, Ky., Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Florida State won 35-31. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Not a start that inspires confidence, but he somehow led three 75-yard touchdown drives in the second half to rally the Seminoles to an improbable 35-31 victory.

At his postgame news conference, FSU coach Mike Norvell clenched his left fist at the podium and declared emphatically: “I knew we could win with Tate.”

It’s doubtful any FSU fan was thinking that at halftime. Rodemaker flipping that switch could eventually get the ‘Noles into a bowl game.

Stockstill finds coaching niche

A coach doesn’t necessarily have to be running a big-time FBS program and hoisting trophies to reap the rewards of job security.

Former Florida State quarterback Rick Stockstill, who grew up in Fernandina Beach, just signed a contract extension to keep coaching at Middle Tennessee State through 2028 at a base salary of $821,000 per year.

Stockstill’s record (103-99) has generally hovered around .500 his entire career, guiding the Blue Raiders to nine winning seasons in 16 years and nine bowl games.

Stockstill, 64, has run a clean program and been reasonably competitive in Conference USA. Sometimes, a coach and a school are a good fit for each other without being a dominant football program, though Stockstill won a Sun Belt Conference title in his second season in 2006.

Time running out on Shrimp

The Jumbo Shrimp are still alive in the International League East division race, but Daren Brown’s ballclub would need close to a miracle to reach the playoffs. After Friday night's 7-5 loss to the last-place Charlotte Knights, Jacksonville’s Triple-A team remained in third place, 3½ games behind the first-place Durham Bulls and 3 games behind the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders with five games remaining.

The home finale is Sunday at 1 p.m. against Charlotte at 121 Financial Ballpark. What may well turn out to be the difference in staying home for the postseason is the Shrimp lost all four six-game series against Durham. The Bulls went 17-7 against Jacksonville and 6-2 in one-run games.

Between call-ups and injuries, the Shrimp have used the most starting pitchers (23) ever in the history of Jacksonville minor-league baseball dating back to 1962. . . .

Quick, parting nuggets

In six decades of watching college football, I’m not sure there’s ever been a more unlucky head coach than Nebraska’s departed Scott Frost.

Those two dropped interceptions on Georgia Southern’s game-winning drive of a 45-42 home loss in his last game leading his alma mater — dropping his record to 5-22 in one-score games — was a microcosm of his whole tenure. …

It’s hard to imagine an organization with the pedigree of the Boston Celtics retaining head coach Ime Udoka after he serves a one-year team suspension for reportedly having an intimate, consensual relationship with a female staff member. While Udoka publicly apologized for putting the Celtics in an untenable position, the organization doesn’t need the PR nightmare of what to do about Udoka’s future. Better to just move on. …  

Pigskin forecast

Los Angeles Chargers over Jaguars by 4 (Justin Herbert flak jackets); Kansas City Chiefs over Indianapolis Colts by 3 (get-well cards); Tennessee Titans over Las Vegas Raiders by 1 (Derrick Henry liftoff); Houston Texans over Chicago Bears by 1 (sneaky-good defense); Tennessee over Florida by 10 (Jabar Gaffney exorcisms); Florida State over Boston College by 7 (bandwagon jumpers). Last week: 6 right, 0 Brett Favre public money grabs. (904) 359-4540 

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Sports grab bag: Florida needs Richardson, plus Jaguars, FSU thoughts