Dooley: UF-UT rivalry is back


Florida's Xavier Nixon exchanges words during the first half against Tennessee in 2011.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

Sometimes you have to miss something to realize how special it was. You spend time without it and you want it like a Weight Watcher craves a cupcake or a teenage girl feels faint because she left her iPhone at the mall.

It can be 15 minutes or 15 years. You get nostalgic and melancholy at the same time. You remember that old thing that used to be such a big part of your life and wish it back again.

Welcome back, Florida v. Tennessee.

Oh, the two teams have been playing annually every year as scheduled. But it's a big game this year and it has been awhile since we could say that.

We remember the old days when it was THE game in college football. Insults would fly from one fan base to another, celebrations would reach epic proportions.

Remember 1998 when the Tennessee fans stormed the field and tore down a fence in the process? Remember 1996 when Florida jumped out to a 35-0 lead and held on in a game that would not only decide the SEC East, but the Heisman Trophy?

Gosh, the 2001 game might have been the biggest of them all. Postponed because of 9/11, the Vols stunned the Gators and went to the SEC title game.

But lately, the game has just been another SEC game. In the last four years, Tennessee hasn't been ranked. For some of you, the 2009 game was big because it was against Lane Kiffin and you were convinced Florida could score 100 to shut him up.

But that was only big to Gator fans.

This is big to all of college football.

Part of it is because the game that was supposed to be the must-see game of the third week of the season has turned into a dud. America's dysfunctional program laid an egg, so Alabama-Arkansas isn't what it was supposed to be.

Part of it is because both of these programs have already won games they could have lost and appear to be on the way back to where they used to be. Of course, the loser drops back under the radar while the winner will be trumpeted as being all the way back. Kind of like Tiger Woods every time he wins a tournament.

Part of it is that both teams are ranked for the first time since 2007. Florida has kept up its share of the bargain for the last four years, but the mighty Vols have slipped under three different coaches. Even during UF's last two sub-par seasons, they were good enough in September to be ranked.

And part of it is because ESPN's College GameDay is in Knoxville, which means you'll get a steady dose of the Tennessee River. GameDay does not always mean your game is big, but it certainly adds to the exposure.

“They've earned the right to get some of the attention they're receiving,” Derek Dooley said of his Tennessee team. “This'll be a little new for us. This is where you want to be. But they need to focus in on what they're doing and not all of the external drama.”

That's part of being involved in a big game. More people want tickets. TV wants more interviews. Your players hear their names more than a normal week.

It used to be that we just assumed Florida v. Tennessee would be a big game. But it went away, like a helium balloon in the wind.

Now it's back. And we know it's big because we already heard a little smack talk this week.

“I think people want to wait and see how we do against Florida,'' said Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore. “But I'm here to tell them that we're going to beat them.''

Makes you think of the old days. Like when Florida's players talked about Peyton Manning's “happy feet” or when James Bates was asked about the empty seats at Neyland Stadium after Florida took its big lead.

“I don't know where all the Tennessee fans went,” he said. “Maybe The Jeff Foxworthy Show was on.”

The good old days. Maybe they're back. Both of these coaches are Nick Saban proteges who inherited tough situations and have needed time to get on the right track.

This game still won't be as big as Alabama-LSU and won't be as big in the East as Georgia-South Carolina later in the year.

But it has a little swagger to it.

And it's good to have that back.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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