KNOXVILLE (CBSMiami/AP) — One of the SEC’s best rivalries will take center stage on Saturday.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones has faced one eventual national champion, two other College Football Playoff semifinalists and another team that reached the BCS championship game since his arrival in Knoxville.
But he doesn’t believe any of his Tennessee teams have ever matched up against a defense as potent as the one they’ll encounter when the 14th-ranked Volunteers (3-0, 0-0 SEC) host No. 19 Florida (3-0, 1-0).
“This is probably the best defense we have faced since I have been here,” Jones said. “They make you earn everything that you get.”
Florida is allowing the fewest points (4.7) and yards (129.7) per game of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. The Gators also have an FBS-leading 16 sacks.
The Gators haven’t given up a touchdown pass all season and are allowing opponents to complete just 34 percent of their pass attempts. In a 32-0 victory over North Texas last week, Florida gave up 53 total yards, the lowest total the Gators have ever allowed in a single game.
“We’ve just been motivated to really hold ourselves to a higher standard and just show everybody across the nation that we’re not coming to play any funny games,” Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “We’re coming to really do what we do and dominate and put ourselves out there as the best defense and the best team in the nation.”
Tennessee had some success last year moving the ball in a 28-27 loss to Florida , which finished the 2015 season ranked eighth nationally in total defense. The Vols outrushed Florida 254-109.
But the Vols realize they’ll be facing a much stronger defense this time.
“I don’t want to take anything away from last year’s (Florida) defense, but I believe this defense is a lot better,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “I believe that not only have they got great players over there, but I think they’re playing more physical over there.”
Florida’s defense has no apparent weaknesses.
Up front, Florida is allowing just 1.3 yards per carry and has five different players with at least two sacks. Jones calls Davis one of the nation’s best linebackers. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are exceptional cover corners who can cover just about anyone one-on-one.
“The numbers, they speak for themselves,” Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “They’re physical up front, and they play a lot of man in the back end. They run to the ball really well.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain credits predecessor Will Muschamp, now at South Carolina, for assembling many of the players who comprise this defense.
“What I like is how hard they’re playing, but more than that, how disciplined and how well they’re playing together,” McElwain said. “It’s just great to see.”
That defense has spent much of the week focusing on how it can better contain Dobbs.
In last year’s meeting with Florida, Dobbs only threw for 83 yards, but he ran for 136 yards and also had a 58-yard touchdown reception. Dobbs became the first FBS player since 2003 to lead his team in passing, rushing and receiving in a single game.
“We had guys trying to do too much,” McElwain said. “And, not as an excuse, this guy is a good player, so he makes you look bad. He’s a great player, and we never stopped him an ounce last year.”
Tennessee’s task will be making sure Dobbs gets enough protection. The Vols’ offensive line has struggled thus far and now faces its toughest test of the season.
The Vols had guard Jack Jones replace Drew Richmond in the starting lineup and had three other linemen switch positions last week, but they still gave up three sacks in a 28-19 victory over Ohio. Tennessee’s line could get a boost this week from the anticipated return of Chance Hall, who started the Vols’ final seven games at right tackle last season but hasn’t played since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last month.
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