The worst part about the assumed impending beatdown from the Gators is that the Tennessee-Florida series is currently tied at 19-19. The one thing we've been able to hang our hats on even in the worst of times against the Gators - TRADITION! - is about to become a defunct argument if Florida gains the upper hand in the all-time series.
In the divisional era of SEC Football that spawned this rivalry in the early 90s, the Tennessee/Florida series has gone through three distinct periods: the Gators' five game winning streak from 1993-1997, followed by seven years of incredibly competitive football games from 1998-2004 where the Vols went 4-3 against the combined efforts of Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, all leading to the Urban Meyer era, who is 4-0 against the Vols.
We felt it coming after the 59-20 beatdown in 2007 and the season opening loss against UCLA, and it didn't take long for our fears to be validated: the Gators jumped to a 17-0 first quarter lead behind an opening drive touchdown and a Brandon James punt return, which is copied and pasted from the 2006 and 2007 game recaps. Tennessee drove inside the Florida 5 twice in the first half and then turned it over twice in one of last season's most agonizing sequences, and Florida cruised to a 30-6 final victory. The Gators stumbled against Ole Miss the very next week, but when Tim Tebow speaks, the people listen: they beat #3 LSU 51-21, #8 Georgia 49-10, and when the competition stiffened the Gators did the same, coming from behind to beat #1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game before winning it all 24-14 over #2 Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.
You know about the quarterback. He'll go behind an offensive line that returns three starters, including two preseason All-SEC first teamers (Mike and Markice Pouncey) and a second teamer (Carl Johnson). If you're looking for offensive weaknesses, you hope that the jaw-droppingly insane 7.8 yards per carry that both Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey averaged last season was in part a product of defenses having to worry about Percy Harvin as well, and with him out of the equation and the offense supposedly going to more of an I-form look at times, those numbers will come back down to earth, at least a little bit. Either way, when you include Tebow in the mix, this team is going to get yards running the football.
The biggest on-the-field question facing the Gators comes in trying to replace Harvin and Louis Murphy at WR. Riley Cooper is a senior and continually burns my secondary in NCAA Football 10, so I'm sure he'll do fine. The leading returning wide receiver is Deonte Thompson, but that's with only 18 catches. The burden is eased by the presence of TE Aaron Hernandez (34 catches in 2008) and David Nelson (big plays against Alabama and Oklahoma). And it's Florida, where receivers grow on trees as if from nowhere, so don't be surprised if a name that we don't know well right now - like Carl Moore or freshman Andre Debose - turns into Timmy's favorite new target.
The standard bearer for defenses in the modern SEC is 1992 Alabama: they only gave up more than 300 yards of total offense once all year, only gave up 20+ points twice and carried an average offense to the National Championship. Even the best SEC defenses since then - 98 Tennessee, 03 LSU, 04 Auburn, 06 Florida - can't rank with this group.
This Florida defense is about to give them a run for their money.
Last year, Ole Miss put 31 on them. Take that game away, and this team gave up an average of 11.5 points per game. And all 11 starters are back.
Several guys turned down serious NFL dollars to come back. Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunalp are the best DE tandem in the conference and possibly the nation. Brandon Spikes in the middle could be the best linebacker in the nation. Joe Haden is now an experienced veteran at corner, Ahmad Black and Major Wright might be the best safety combo in the nation, and none of this is exaggeration. Any points you get against this defense will be a blessing.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
If the Vols start 2-0, here's a stat you're sure to hear about fifty thousand times the week of September 19: which defense had the best statistical day against the Florida offense in 2008?
That's right: it's the Vols, who limited Florida to 243 total yards. Thanks to Brandon James and the Vols themselves scoring only 6 points, Tim Tebow could stay in his Clark Kent attire the whole day at Neyland, going just 8 of 15 for 96 yards and running only 12 times for only 26 yards. I'm going ahead and putting it out there now so it's easier to remember when you're trying to talk yourselves into the upset in six weeks.
To stay with Florida, the Vols are going to need what every massive underdog needs: something good early to (somewhat) take the crowd out of it, lots of turnovers that create short fields against the Gator defense, and plenty of good fortune throughout. In the best case environment, Jonathan Crompton makes no mistakes (remember, he did have one of his best days against UF last year), the Vols win time of possession and thus win the rushing battle, the defense again slows down a Florida offense where inexperienced players at WR don't make any plays...and all of that leaves them in the game as it moves to the 4th quarter. Get there, and anything can happen.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Tebow writes "REPENT" on his eyeblack.
Brandon James runs the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. Jonathan Crompton is sacked 11 times, one for every starter. It only rains when the Vols are on offense, and every Tennessee running back that touches the ball fumbles, in honor of Jay Graham and Casey Clausen. Tim Tebow accounts for 777 yards of total offense, then John Brantley throws a couple touchdowns just to keep us worried, and Florida wins 105-0. After the game, Urban Meyer wonders aloud why he would go to Notre Dame when Touchdown Jesus clearly favors the Gators, and Lane Kiffin says he'll have all the words to Rocky Top learned by September 2010.
Game Importance Ranking: 9.2
And here's why: if Brian Kelly is coaching the Vols, how important is this game?
The Gators are the undisputed preseason favorites in the SEC and the nation, playing with would might turn out to be the best college football player of all time. They would've been massive, massive favorites no matter who the coach was in Knoxville.
But because it's Kiffin, and because he said what he said, our logo is in their locker room...and here's a fun question: is this the game the Gators are looking forward to more than any other?
When you're the defending National Champions, it's hard to get up for everything the same way all over again. And since the Gators don't play Ole Miss (or would only see them in Atlanta), there's no team on their schedule they haven't beaten, no scores to settle. There is Baton Rouge, where Urban Meyer is 0-2, so that's something...but the tone of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry is somehow so much stronger than the LSU-Florida one right now, despite the fact that those two teams have won the last three National Championships. It's the Vols and Gators, not the Gators and Bengal Tigers, who are getting the most publicity. Kiffin did that. And Meyer will want to make him pay for it. That makes this game important.
Really, there are few ways this ends truly poorly for the Vols. If they get hammered, they're supposed to. If they keep it close, it builds hope. But because the eyes of the nation will be on this game, especially if the Vols beat UCLA, it becomes Kiffin's first chance to make a statement with the entire country watching. What kind of statement we're going to make, I have no idea. But opportunity, she knocks.
Unfortunately, she's also wearing a #15 jersey and carrying a crystal football in each hand.
from Alligator Army: Seven Things That Need To Happen Before September 5