No. 18 Gators, No. 23 Vols boast different styles
By MARK LONG
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Steve Spurrier and Johnny Majors probably would not approve.
No. 18 Florida is running the ball early and often, a slow-it-down, ground-and-pound attack featuring senior Mike Gillislee.
No. 23 Tennessee is throwing it all over the field, relying on junior Tyler Bray's accuracy, arm strength and decision-making skills to direct an up-tempo, often no-huddle, offense.
The contrasting styles are working to perfection for the Southeastern Conference rivals. Gillislee helped the Gators (2-0, 1-0 SEC) eke out wins against Bowling Green and Texas A&M. Bray carried the Volunteers (2-0) to victories over North Carolina State and Georgia State.
Whichever teams keeps it going Saturday probably should have a big advantage in the Eastern Division showdown.
"They're going to want it slow and we're going to want it fast," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said.
Bray leads the league in passing, averaging more than 320 yards a game. He has completed nearly 74 percent of his passes for 643 yards, with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Gators, meanwhile, rank last in the SEC in passing. They prefer to keep the ball in Gillislee's hands. A former backup to speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, Gillislee leads the league with 231 yards and four scores.
He has scored twice in each of Florida's victories, but also finished last week's game at Texas A&M with a groin injury. Gators coach Will Muschamp insists Gillislee will be fine for Saturday game in Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida needs him at full speed, too, given the team has unproven backs behind him and an even less experienced quarterback. The Gators have had to scratch and claw for each win.
"I told the guys at the end of the game, `We're going to have to win some games like that this year. This is kind of who we are,'" Muschamp said. "I know nobody wants to hear that, but that's the facts of life. Sometimes you've got to put your realistic glasses on and see who you are."
The grind-it-out Gators are a far cry from Spurrier's "Fun `n' Gun" teams that revolutionized the SEC. Between 1991 and 2000, the Gators won six SEC titles and played for two more.
If Florida gets back to Atlanta for the first time since 2009, Gillislee certainly will be leading the way.
"Mike Gillislee is a great running back," center Jon Harrison said. "He has a lot of heart, a lot of drive. He's the one coming back to the huddle, `Guys, get me the ball. We've got to go, let's go. Get me the ball. I will get this first (down), I will get this touchdown.'
"We love that about him. We love having a back in the backfield that all he wants is the W's for the team, and he's going to give it his all, even if it's sacrificing his body."
Bray, meanwhile, has gotten through the first two games unscathed - the best possible news for Tennessee.
He missed five games last season because of a broken right thumb, and the Volunteers weren't the same without him. He has shown a penchant for big plays, the kind of QB play rarely seen during Majors' tenure (1977-92). Some believe Bray has a chance to be the school's best signal caller since Peyton Manning.
"He can make all the throws," Muschamp said. "That's the thing that really jumps out at you. Some of the vertical throws down the field, they get there in a hurry. He's got great touch on the ball. He's got a good rapport with his receivers with some of the back shoulder fades and things they throw.
"He throws the ball into tight coverages. So, it's not like he's throwing against zone all the time. ... He's put up very impressive numbers when he's been healthy."
Florida faced Bray before the injury and jumped out front early, leading 30-7, before Bray led a mild comeback. He completed 26 of 48 passes for 288 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It certainly didn't help that receiver Justin Hunter sustained a season-ending knee injury on Tennessee's fourth play.
Nonetheless, Bray left an impression on the Gators.
"He's a daredevil," cornerback Marcus Roberson said. "He forces good balls. He's got a strong arm. ... Just forcing the ball out. We like that."
Bray, Hunter and junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson could pose problems for Florida's secondary, especially when using a no-huddle offense that tends to create chaos for the defense.
"We definitely know coming in Tennessee is going to drop back and try to get some deep threats," Gators linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "They feel like their receivers are probably overmatched for our DBs. We feel like we're going to have our opportunities to get back there and put some pressure on the (quarterback)."
Updated September 13, 2012