It's the 3rd Saturday of September. Tennessee. Rocky Top and 100,000 plus packing Neyland Stadium. Do Gator fans even care? Will the Gators be caught looking ahead to Kentucky? What's happened to what used to be a pivotal early season showdown?
Freshman at UF haven't seen Tennessee beat the Gators since they were in 7th grade. Five years and counting. Even the two game win-streak that the Vols had in 2003-2004 didn't mean much considering Florida wasn't a contender for much more than the Outback bowl during the Zook years. Since then, Tennessee has been even worse, and it doesn't appear to be getting better for the Big Orange anytime soon. True, Lane Kiffin's mouth momentarily revitalized the series a year ago by making Gator blood boil, but you have to go back to 2001 to find a game that really mattered. That Vol upset in December in Gainesville cost the Gators a trip to the National Championship game in Spurrier's final season as coach.
At this point, I'm surprised to even see this as the featured 3:30 game on CBS. What used to be a heavily hyped game has turned into an afterthought. Maybe some Florida fans can name a handful of players on the Tennessee roster, but casual fans would have trouble naming any. Coaching turmoil and years of either poor recruiting or mass transfers and attrition have left the Tennessee Volunteers in a rebuilding mode that has been ongoing now for the past 4 or 5 years.
Florida has also lost much of their luster from the preseason. Six quarters of mediocre football have caused many to be skeptical of the Gators abilities. No preseason top 10 team has ever fallen further than the Gators have after opening with two wins. Although the Gators seem to have gotten back on track with a dominating second half performance of South Florida a week ago, this game is by no means a gimme.
Although overall I don't think this year's edition of the Volunteers are much better than the USF squad UF beat last week, they do have a number of weapons, most importantly a bruising rushing attack led by junior Tauren Poole. If QB Matt Simms can play ball-control mistake free football against a Gator secondary that has tallied 8 interceptions in just two games, the Vols might be able to hang around the Gators late into the game, and possibly make the crowd a factor for the young Gators.
The Volunteers also have a dangerous special teams duo in kicker Daniel Lincoln and punter Chad Cunningham, two seniors who have played exceptionally well so far this year, especially compared to Florida's kickers who have not performed well. Defensively, Florida needs to tackle well, limit penalties, and force turnovers to try to prevent getting worn down by the Vol running game.
The loss of Chris Rainey hurts, but offensive success in this game will be determined more by the coaches, and their play-calling style. Six quarters of gimmicky option football with a passing QB turned out to be a disaster, but the Gators proved in the second half last week that they can clearly out-talent most teams in a more conventional attack.
Unlike Georgia, which due to a neutral field location remains an intense rivalry even when one team is down over the course of a few years, the Tennessee rivalry will only become relevant again when Tennessee starts beating Florida or starts contending for the SEC East. Even though Florida is a heavy favorite and should win this game, this might be the best chance over the next few years that Tennessee will have to beat the Gators. If that doesn't happen, the rivalry aspect between these two schools may soon become a distant memory.