The Tennessee-Florida rivalry may be the product of league expansion and Steve Spurrier, but its lifeblood is mutual success. Without the history of Tennessee-Alabama or the geographical proximity of Tennessee-Georgia, the Vols and Gators need each other to be good for the rivalry to get to that next level. The fact that Florida has won six straight in this series is almost an afterthought: the Vols haven't been good enough for that to really mean anything to Florida, and we've been too busy dealing with our own problems to worry about those the Gators were creating for us.
We continue to hammer the theme that it's not about getting back, it's about moving forward. Saturday's game cannot measure up to any in the golden era of the Vols/Gators series, when both teams were ranked in the Top 10 for almost an entire decade. But for a number of reasons, it's going to have the same big game feel.
It's the first real test for Will Muschamp. It's the first actual big game for Derek Dooley - the Kentucky game last year and the Cincinnati game last week were important, but only relatively so. This game is the real thing. It's the first time the Vols come into this game at 2-0 since 2006. And it is what it always should be: the tone-setter for both teams, and the first step in an increasingly crowded SEC East race.
The 2011 version of Tennessee-Florida matters for those and many other reasons. But the Tennessee-Florida rivalry itself has a chance to truly matter again not just because both programs could be on the rebound, but because of the two men in charge of that process.
The story writes itself: Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp, good friends and students of Saban, in command of the two teams that have had the most success in the SEC East. (Random rasslin fact: in 1996 WWF put on a pay per view called "Good Friends, Better Enemies", which is my nomination for what we'll call this era of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry if it lives up to the hype. It's much more poetic than the "Can't spell Citrus without UT" era.)
It is, as Clay Travis pointed out on our podcast this week, an Eastern Division that feels very up for grabs - not just this season, but in the immediate future as well. With Mark Richt in trouble and Steve Spurrier now 66 years young, Dooley and Muschamp - though incredibly unproven as head coaches - have an opportunity to lead their programs to the front of the pack.
Dooley got his feet wet last year, but as we're always quick to remind you, that was Year Zero. Will Muschamp will be awarded no such luxury on the calendar - the bar is set higher in Gainesville, and the Gators haven't gone through the unique transitions the Vols faced in the last three years. Still, even if this game is Dooleyan Year One vs. Actual Year One, the Vols should have every advantage in this particular intangible. This is Muschamp's very first big game as a head coach. It's Dooley's first trip to The Swamp, but he earned his stripes in Baton Rouge and Athens last fall.
History tells us we can't automatically assume good things against first year coaches, however. In fact, Tennessee is traditionally horrible against them: Nick Saban (twice), Gene Chizik, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, and Mark Richt all beat the Vols in their first season at the helm. Steve Spurrier also did it at South Carolina; it's been twenty-one years since the Vols obliterated him 45-3 in his first appearance in this rivalry, a game that almost certainly caused Spurrier to run up the score whenever he had a chance to against us to return the favor.
UT's losses to Zook and Meyer in their first years were particularly frustrating: Casey Clausen in the rain in 2002, the last time we thought the Vols were getting ready to take the East Division by the horns. And with another preseason top five team, the Vols met special teams disaster in The Swamp in 2005 in a 16-7 loss to the Gators in Meyer's first appearance.
There are no guarantees...but now that all the players have changed in this rivalry, that may include history itself.
Dooley and Muschamp have a chance to write their own history in this rivalry...and it may get started with the Vols attempting to throw out the first rule of Tennessee-Florida:
The team that wins rushing yards wins the game.
Seventeen times in nineteen years, it's been true. The only two exceptions are The Jabar Gaffney Game (which brings us to the second, and almost certainly still valid rule of this rivalry: Do not kick field goals, score touchdowns), and the aforementioned 2002 game where the Gators repeatedly saw short fields thanks to UT fumbles and couldn't pick up a ton of yards.
Everything we've seen from the Vols suggests winning the rushing battle won't be one of their strengths, in this or any contest this fall. Everything we've seen from Florida suggests Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps will get their yards on the ground.
But again: all the players have changed. Derek Dooley and Jim Chaney step into their second year of this rivalry, but almost every one of their offensive weapons from last year's game have changed. That really includes Tauren Poole, who got banged up against the Gators last year. Matt Simms is now number two, and Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker have all graduated. For Tyler Bray and Da'Rick Rogers, this will be brand new. And Justin Hunter had 3 catches for 60 yards in this game last year as purely a deep threat. Now, he takes center stage.
None of the coaches or players responsible for Tennessee's six game losing streak are around anymore. This is a new day in this rivalry...and the Vols' best chance to win sure looks like it will come from throwing away the golden rule of this rivalry, and dancing with the one that brought them: In Tyler We Trust.
The Vols tried it in The Swamp with Andy Kelly and lost 35-18. They tried it with Heath Shuler and lost 41-34. They tried it with Peyton Manning and lost 62-37 and 33-20. They tried it with Erik Ainge and lost 59-20. Every Tennessee team that has gone to Gainesville and started a shootout has died a terrible death by a bigger gun.
But those guns were in the hands of Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson, and Tim Tebow. This time, it's in the hands of John Brantley. In his third start under Charlie Weis. With personnel more suited to run a different attack.
The old UT teams didn't lose shootouts in The Swamp because the Gator defense shut down the Vol offense. They lost because they started fights they couldn't finish, and Florida's offense overwhelmed the UT defense, with an assist from Vol turnovers. But this year? The Vols aren't great on defense, but can this new, untested Florida offense win a shootout? Against Tyler Bray?
Never before has it been more apparent that Tennessee is at its best in the passing game. And never has a Florida offense come into this game with such little faith in their own ability to win a shootout. If the Vols are going to win in Gainesville, it seems almost certain that they will do so because of their talented sophomores at quarterback and wide receiver. Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter have none of the negative history we all associate with playing these guys...and after last Saturday, they should have all the confidence they need to get it done.
It's a brand new day for Tennessee and Florida, with two brand new coaches who could bring us into a great new chapter of this rivalry. They'll have to do their part by getting their programs back into the national elite, a journey that will most likely play out over the course of this and next season for both teams.
But on Saturday, only one gets off to a good start.
Forget everything you know about Tennessee and Florida. With the right hand of Tyler Bray, the Vols can write a new chapter.