There is nothing like Tennessee week. The trash-talking, the Heisman Trophy implications, the leg up in the SEC East, the poll ramifications. The hype is so loud you can barely hear yourself think.
I had a ’90s flashback.
Back to reality where I have to wonder if it even is still a rivalry game. Florida has won 12-of-13. This is not about the SEC East anymore. The only mentions of the Heisman will be in Heisman House commercials during the game.
It’s kind of sad in a way that this game that once felt like the end of the world now feels like just another game in the SEC.
“You’re prime time, ESPN. It’s a big game,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.
Yeah, I can’t explain ESPN’s logic, but know that on ESPN2 Mississippi State and Kentucky will be playing and that’s actually a much bigger game, which is all you really need to know.
It’s as if Florida vs. Tennessee is the equivalent of the Giants vs. the Cowboys. They may not be much and there are better games but we’re putting the G-Men and the ’Pokes in the Sunday night prime time window because who they are, not what they are.
ESPN will have all kinds of highlights and graphics about when this game meant something.
“Growing up, I always loved to watch (this game),” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of passion in both fan bases, a lot of tradition, so I’m thankful to have a chance to be a part of it.”
Growing up, Jeremy, this game was epic. The pre-game chatter would wear you out.
Now, it’s two coaches trying to rebuild from the rubble, two unranked teams not even getting votes among the others, two teams that COMBINED to win eight games last year.
Please, hold back your excitement.
“The Florida-Tennessee rivalry game does bring some tension between the two teams,” said senior receiver Josh Hammond.
Yes, because there were those last two wins in Gainesville for the Gators and that second-half beatdown in Knoxville the last time Florida was there.
So, we get that the players are still going to feel like this is a big rivalry game and certainly the two head coaches will talk it up.
“It means a lot,” Hammond said, “for both of those head coaches to start 1-0.”
OK, so we have that. It matters to both programs a lot. Outside of those buildings, meh, not so much.
Maybe this rivalry has slipped so much we need a trophy for the winner, maybe a moonshine jug filled with margaritas. Or maybe just a participation ribbon.
Because this thing lost its luster in a hurry. The East feels like a battle for second. The winner gets a leg up all right, a leg up on the Belk Bowl.
College football can be cruelly cyclical. In both cases, Florida and Tennessee pretty much did this to themselves.
Bad hires can tear a program down so gradually you wake up one morning and it’s on the corner with a shopping cart, a scroungy dog and a cardboard sign.
We all know about Florida’s problems the last eight years. The Gators have been able to take solace in the fact that at least they haven’t been Tennessee.
Since the end of the 2007 season — the penultimate one for Phil Fulmer — Tennessee is at even .500 overall (thanks to Jeremy Pruitt’s 2-1 record this year). During that stretch it has had one winning record in SEC play. ONE! The Vols have lost at least seven games in a season six times in the last 10 seasons.
Tennessee and Florida have one thing in common — coaching instability since the glory days of Steve Spurrier vs. Fulmer. And the Vols just went through a coaching search that should be a sitcom this fall.
(Florida had its own TV series that was much more serious with death threats, hurricanes, dead fish and suspensions.)
That’s how these teams got to this point where the most impressive win after three weeks is, well, there really isn’t one.
Saturday night may feel like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron playing Home Run Derby. Today.
It still will be one of the great settings in sports (prepare for a feature on the Vol Navy during the broadcast and some mention of Calhoun’s), still be a bunch of Tennessee fans who hate the Gators and vice versa, still be one team celebrating when it’s over.
It’s still Florida-Tennessee, even if it’s a watered-down version.
And one day it could be back to what it once was.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.