Gators vs. Vols still big, just not on national scale


This year's Florida-Tennessee game marks the first appearance in the rivalry for UF coach Will Muschamp, left, and the second appearance for Vols coach Derek Dooley. (Photos by The Associated Press)

Published: Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 5:49 p.m.

It's big. It's really big. In Gainesville and Knoxville, it's huge. In the Gator Nation and the Vol Nation, it's a big deal.

Nationally, not so much.

There was a time when it was THE game. That's why CBS opens its SEC schedule with it every year. That, and the network's contract with the U.S. Open.

Steve Spurrier's jokes about the Citrus Bowl helped fuel it. But more than anything it was that every year they were the best two teams in the better division. For the first 10 seasons of SEC divisional play, Florida or Tennessee were the only teams from the East who made it to Atlanta. Seven times, one of them left Atlanta with a trophy.




It was amazing to see two teams who hardly played each other before (15 times in 86 years before SEC division play) embrace animosity so easily. There is even an SEC rule about opposing fans being behind the opposing bench because of a Florida-Tennessee incident. (It wasn't pretty and if you don't know what happened, have someone tell you. This is a family newspaper.)

It stayed intense during Ron Zook's three seasons, especially when two blown calls cost him not only a game, but eventually his job. When Urban Meyer took over, he needed to beat Tennessee to take back The Swamp.

And he did. Over and over and over again. It started with that first game, that incredibly electric night when Florida started its six-game winning streak over UT.

“The stadium blew me away that night,” Meyer said. “That's what I remember the most from it.”

Meyer won all six of his games against the Vols. He won big (59-20 in 2007) and little (21-20 in 2006). Mainly, he always won. Even last season when his team lost three homes games and five games overall, it handled Tennessee.

Meyer is not the only reason this is not your father's Florida-Tennessee game. But he's a big reason. When the opposing coach is crowing about a 10-point loss as Lane Kiffin did in 2009, you know the national brand of the game has lost some shine.

But a good part of the blame for UF-UT not being what it used to be falls in the laps of the Vols. Tennessee hasn't been ranked coming into its last four games against the Gators. Tennessee has lost 34 games in the last six seasons.

It hurts this year's game that in Hoover, Ala., the teams the media usually could pencil in at the top of the East were slated to finish third and fourth. It doesn't help that two games in the state will have brighter spotlights Saturday.

All that said, will you be screaming any less loud Saturday? Will Tennessee fans sing “Rocky Top” any softer? Will a win feel any less exhilarating or a loss any less numbing?

Nope, because to the fan bases of the two schools, this is still a really big game. It's not so much about history, but the future. What has happened in the past means little, because these are newbie coaches, one in his first Florida-Tennessee game and the other in his second.

Both sides know a loss will not destroy dreams of Atlanta, but will take a big bite out of them. Both sides know South Carolina looked vulnerable last week, and the East looks more wide open than it did before the season. Both sides know a win doesn't secure anything more than a 1-0 record in the conference, but a win is a giant step forward for this season.

I told some people last weekend that Georgia-South Carolina has become the new Florida-Tennessee, that early season game that carries more weight than one game typically does. I'm not sure if both games were scheduled for this weekend that the Dawgs and Gamecocks would be the way CBS opened up its SEC coverage, and Florida-Tennessee would be relegated to the Ocho or the U or the Deuce.

None of this matters to either team or either coaching staff. This is a huge game for all of them, no matter the rankings or sexiness of either team.

It's the mighty Gators vs. the mighty Vols.

That should be good enough.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. You can listen to The Dools and ‘Dozo Show weekdays from noon-2 p.m. on 104.9 FM. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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