Rivalry game sets tone for two teams


Florida center Jonotthan Harrison and the offensive line face off with the Tennessee defensive line during last season's game in Knoxville, Tenn.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 3:54 p.m.

The 2012 Florida-Tennessee game is a prime example of how one early game, one victory or defeat, can impact the course of an entire season.

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Florida center Jonotthan Harrison and the offensive line face off with the Tennessee defensive line during last season's game in Knoxville, Tenn.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

At this time a year ago, there was a buzz around Knoxville that the Vols were back, that they were all set to re-emerge as a serious contender in the SEC East. That buzz, that belief, would be validated with a win over Florida, a victory that would end UT's seven-game losing streak to the Gators.

It didn't happen, of course. Despite a frenzied atmosphere in Neyland Stadium, the Gators came from behind with a strong second half to vanquish the Vols 37-20.

It was more than just a loss. It was the beginning of the end for UT's season. The beginning of the end for head coach Derek Dooley, who was fired after all the unraveling and the dismal 5-7 season (1-7 in the SEC).

For Florida, it was more than just a win. It was a defining moment, an indication that the Gators had pulled themselves out of their stupor coming off a 7-6 season and were conference contenders again.

UF rode the early momentum to an 11-1 regular season and top-10 finish in the nation.

A year later, the Vols and Gators find themselves at a similar crossroads. Today's winner joins the race in the East, while the loser might be facing a potential fatal fade, especially considering the toughness of schedule for both schools. (UF still has to play at LSU, Georgia and at South Carolina; UT has a three-game October stretch of Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama).

The Florida-Tennessee rivalry might not be what it was back in the day (when the two were clearly the elite teams in the division), but today's game is critical.

“It's a huge game for both teams,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “It's still a huge rivalry. It's a very important game at the University of Florida. There's no question about it.”

The Gators and Vols are both coming off devastating non-conference losses. UF turned the ball over five times and was upended by in-state rival Miami two weeks ago. The Vols are coming off a 59-14 humiliation at No. 2 Oregon last Saturday.

Those kind of losses have a tendency to linger. Maybe the best way to file them away is to dive into SEC play, which the Gators and Vols are doing today.

“Going into this game, we definitely feel we're going into a new season, the SEC,” Florida tailback Matt Jones said. “We've got to go undefeated in the SEC to get to the national championship. It's definitely a different preparation knowing that we can't lose. It makes us work hard every day.”

UT coach Butch Jones said the Vols have recovered from their 45-point loss to Oregon and will be ready to compete today.

“I thought our players came back (from the Oregon loss) with a workmanlike mentality and attitude,” Jones said. “They know what's at stake. It's the first SEC game; Florida is a rivalry game. We have to be the team that overachieves on Saturday.”

Muschamp said what happened to the Vols in Oregon last Saturday will have no impact on today's game.

“We just need to take care of Florida, and we'll get Tennessee's best effort,” he said. “Oregon has got a good football team. We just need to take care of Florida and start the SEC schedule. Their tempo and momentum will be a little different walking in here. I can assure you of that.”

The Gators also are expecting their momentum to be different today than it was two weeks ago in Miami. In the 21-16 loss to the Hurricanes, UF rolled up lots of yards between the 20-yard lines, but turned the ball over five times, including three in the red zone (two Jeff Driskel interceptions and a Trey Burton fumble).

The Gators have spent the past two weeks focusing on ball security. But then they always do, Muschamp said.

“It's (an emphasis) in every practice. We practice it every single day,” Muschamp said. “It's something we talk about constantly, we emphasize, we take pictures of ... there's no new emphasis on ball security that hasn't been talked about before.

“When you turn it over five times, it's a self-evaluating issue. I don't know that it was emphasized any more than it always is in practice.

“We've been very good last season in ball security, other than one football game. This year we had an issue last week, obviously. We've got to move forward, create more turnovers defensively and create more momentum for our football team.”

Driskel was responsible for three of the five turnovers in the UM loss. In the Gators' three losses over the past two seasons, Driskel has turned the ball over 10 times (six interceptions and four fumbles).

He said his performance two weeks ago has not shaken his confidence, and he will concentrate on taking better care of the football.

“First of all, don't try to do too much as a quarterback,” he said. “Just go with what you're coached and don't try to do too much and hold onto the ball when you're running.

“We know that teams are going to be going for the ball this year. We've really got to work on ball security and really lock in, especially in the red zone.”

And especially now that the Gators are entering SEC play.

“It's the start of the SEC (schedule) for us,” middle linebacker Michael Taylor said. “You've got to start off the right way.”

Or the season could start heading in the wrong direction.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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