By: Nicholas Joost
Once upon a football season, in an SEC galaxy far away, the Tennessee Volunteers broke Gator hearts young and old. “Once upon a time,” is a phrase ever so fitting, because it certainly feels like it has been ages since Tennessee has even sniffed the sweet scent of 'Big Orange' victory against its bitter rivals from Gainesville.
It was December of 2001, and the Gators were welcoming the rival Volunteers into The Swamp—a place where a Tennessee team had not beaten Florida since 1971. On that '71 Volunteer team was an All-SEC offensive guard named Phil Fulmer, who was now head coach of Tennessee. Fulmer led his squad on a 99-yard touchdown drive to clinch a 20-13 victory that day at Florida Field in 1971, yet grew to know Florida as his unbeatable arch nemesis as a coach.
That all changed on December 1, 2001, as the game was rescheduled while the nation stood sill after the tragedy of September 11. The game couldn't have been more exciting—College Gameday was in town and Florida was #2 in the country with one game separating it from another SEC East title. Gator fans were very confident; Florida was a two-touchdown favorite over #5 Tennessee. That's right, two touchdowns over the 5th ranked team in the country. This, however, was pretty routine because Florida was so untouchable at home under Steve Spurrier, especially against the Vols. The Gator faithful were expecting another party in The Swamp—which is what most UF home games turned into back then.
That party was crashed by Tennessee RB Travis Stephens. Stephens ran over, around, and mostly right through the Florida defense all evening. Stephens galloped for 226 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries as Tennessee upset the Gators 34-32. Among the then-record crowd of 85,771 inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, none of us knew this would be the last time Steve Spurrier would roam the west sidelines as Head Ball Coach.
Gators and Volunteers certainly don't agree on much (like Jabar Gaffney's touchdown catch in 2000), but without a doubt look back and long for the old days when the rivalry was reverently referred to as the “Third Saturday in September.”
Florida-Tennessee used to be the first must win of the season. It used to mean the winner had the inside track on the SEC Eastern Division. In fact, the first 10 SEC Championship games featured either Florida or Tennessee representing the East. In total, Florida or Tennessee has played in 15 of the 21 SEC Titles, the last being Florida in 2009. Times have changed.
Don't get me wrong, the fact that Florida can potentially extend its winning streak over Tennessee to nine games Saturday is thrilling. Yet, when ESPN announced that College Gameday would be spending the weekend known in seasons past as “separation Saturday” live from North Dakota State University, the message was loud and clear to the nation that the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has officially lost its luster and mystique.
The 2013 edition of Florida-Tennessee is now the first can't lose game of the season, especially for No. 19 Florida (1-1), which is in desperate need of improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Could you even imagine the aftermath of a Tennessee victory in The Swamp this weekend? I don't think I even want to go there. The Gators are vulnerable, coming in after one of the sloppiest offensive performances in recent memory, losing at Miami 21-16 two weeks ago. While out-gaining Miami by 200 yards, Florida turned the ball over four times inside the Hurricane 20 yard line, including a failed conversion on 4th and inches. Needless to say, ball protection is of the greatest emphasis for the UF offense this Saturday.
The news isn't all bad for this Gator team that is trying to get its season back on track. Tennessee (2-1) is coming off a 59-14 loss at Oregon last weekend. Frankly, the score doesn't even indicate how dominant Oregon was. The Ducks steamrolled the Volunteer defense for 687 yards and scored 59 points before the third quarter ended. That's encouraging news for the Gator offense which has scored only 40 points through two games.
I don't think there is a whole lot to breakdown as far as the X's and O's go. The only thing I ask of the coaching staff is to get the freshmen play-makers involved offensively. Florida has two potential star receivers in Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson, not to mention one of the nation's top High School running backs in Kelvin Taylor from year ago. Those could be three difference makers for Florida's offense as we near October, and the bulk of the SEC schedule. This game is a perfect scenario for Florida to fix a lot of things offensively. The Gators will be healthy and in front of a capacity home crowd against a team that is rebuilding under a first-year head coach. Florida should have no trouble moving the ball on Tennessee's defense. It all comes down to whether Florida's drives end with points or turnovers. We will find out a lot about where this Gator squad is mentally during the first quarter.
Losing to Miami really shook the confidence of Gator fans and the feeling is palpable coming into this Tennessee game. It's like after you go through a really tough breakup with a girlfriend. You know you have to get back into the game at some point, but you're nervous about putting yourself out there and risking further anguish and embarrassment.
Once bitten, twice shy.
Nobody can ever change what happened two weeks ago. It's in the history books. The Gators have to put it in the rear view mirror, but at the same time never forget the consequences of being ill prepared and losing focus in the redzone. It will be very interesting to see how quarterback Jeff Driskel responds this week. Driskel threw for a career high 291 yards vs. Miami and hit three different receivers for at least six completions. At times against Miami, Driskel looked more comfortable in a Gator jersey than he ever has. His mistakes, however, were devastating and must be corrected. In Florida's last three losses, Driskel has accounted for 10 turnovers. His development throughout the season might be the most important aspect of Florida's quest to get back to Atlanta. Saturday is a perfect opportunity for Florida to gain some of its swagger back. Although a Florida victory won't guarantee anything like it used to, it would certainly be good start for the Gators to get 2013 back on track.
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