KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Being the new Florida coach, Dan Mullen has already piled up a bunch of firsts.
First time out of the tunnel. First win. First loss. First player to announce he was transferring in the locker room after a game. First post-game dance with the players in the locker room. And so on.
Tonight, he faces two more firsts: first road game and, even more important, first elimination game.
Since his arrival in Gainesville, Mullen has talked a lot about winning championships and returning UF to a championship program. But if the Gators don’t win tonight, all that talk can cease until next season.
Because if the Gators lose to the Vols, they will fall to 0-2 in the SEC. That would likely mean elimination in the Eastern Division race before the end of September. A loss likely would make the Gators the favorite to finish at, or near, the bottom of the division.
For that reason alone, this game is huge for Mullen and the Gators.
“There’s a real sense of urgency to it,” offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy said.
Yes, there is.
This first road game for Mullen is an important one.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for our team,” Mullen said. “I want to see how our players are going to respond to adversity, having to go on the road and playing in a real tough environment.
“This is one of those fun challenges in the SEC.”
It’s a challenge, no doubt. But the Gators may not get the fun part of it.
This is a team that lost to Kentucky at home two weeks ago and sputtered offensively in The Swamp last Saturday against Colorado State.
Is this team ready to take its questionable game on the road and expect to win against an SEC opponent?
We’re about to find out.
“Tennessee’s a really good football team,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “They’re a good football team just like we are. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re up for the challenge, just go out there and play football and have fun. The coaches will get us prepared this week, so we’ll be fine.”
Florida and Tennessee are similar.
Both are starting over with new coaches, both are led by redshirt sophomore quarterbacks who are developing as they go, both are struggling on offense, both have had issues on the lines of scrimmage.
It appears to be a game between two evenly matched teams.
The difference is the Vols will have about 100,000 fans behind them.
“I haven’t played in Neyland Stadium yet, but I’ve played in places like Alabama and LSU and those stadiums are pretty loud,” junior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “But people are telling me those places are nothing compared to what Tennessee is.
“Just go out there and enjoy it, have fun. I like playing away games. Just stay focused. We’ve just got to execute. If we do that, we’ll be fine, we’ll get the result we want.”
This will be the first time Franks has played in Neyland Stadium. But he already knows what he’s going to face. Two years ago he made the trip to Knoxville even though he was redshirting for his freshman season.
“Man, it was super loud,” he said. “I love playing in places like that.”
Many of the UF players will be experiencing Neyland Stadium for the first time. The veteran players have given them a scouting report on what to expect.
“Guys like (true freshman running back) Dameon Pierce, I just tell them it’s going to be loud, don’t let it distract you,” junior running back Lamical Perine said. “Just don’t let the moment get too big for you. Just go out there and play football and go and do what you came here for.”
They came to Florida to play for championships. But they have to get out alive tonight if they have any hope of playing for one this season.
It adds considerable pressure to the first road game of the season. But Franks said the Gators can handle it.
“We’re more focused on just ourselves right now, just the main thing, (instead of what’s on the line,” he said. “Focusing on our offense, getting things smoothed out with us first. But it’s a big game for us. It’s important to have a really good week of practice and be prepared to play these guys.”