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Tennessee vs Florida Preview: Everything Old Is New Again

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While Tennessee fans stare down a decade of disaster, a young Vol squad has victory in its sights.

Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

The picture above was taken with 7:33 left in the third quarter two years ago.  On 3rd and goal from the one, the Vols put A.J. Johnson in the Wild Beast package and let their middle linebacker do the rest on a touchdown which put the Vols ahead 20-13.  Tennessee botched the extra point, but on the ensuing drive the Gators got just one first down, then chose to fake a punt.  The Vols read it, stopped it, and took over at the Florida 47 yard line with five minutes to play in the third quarter.

Other than a few years in the student section, I've sat in Z11 my whole life.  My dad's old fraternity brothers populate our row, these days occupied more often than not by their children.  But for big games and big moments, the adults come back.  One of them in particular, when the Vols stuffed that fake, turned to me and said, "We're about to whip their (Fulmerized)."

This is what we want against Florida.  The Fulmerizer.  Necessary because deep down we want to do things we can't say in public to this team.

These thoughts are always growing because Tennessee hasn't broken out the Fulmerizer against the Gators since 1992, a 31-14 Neyland downpour (also one of the last times Brent Musberger was in the house before tomorrow).  Two years before that it was 45-3 Tennessee.

But in the 21 years after that, Tennessee has won four times:  by three in overtime, by two in The Swamp, by two touchdowns thanks in part to a hail mary, and by two on a 50 yard field goal.

Florida has won 17 times.  Nine in a row.

Other than the 21-20 game in 2006, all of Florida's wins in this streak have been by at least nine points.  Many of them recently have spent most of their time in the just-out-of-reach category; the Gators have won the last five by between 10 and 17 points.  But since that 2006 game, when Tennessee had a 17-7 third quarter lead, the Vols have only had the ball in the second half with the lead or a chance to take the lead against Florida once.

That was two years ago, up 20-13 with the ball, five minutes to play in the third quarter on the Florida 47.  The Fulmerizer was warming up.

On the first play of the drive, Tyler Bray was called for intentional grounding.  The Vols punted away on 4th and 8 at the Florida 45, still up 20-13 with 3:27 to play when Florida's offense returned to the field at the 20 yard line.

Half of Florida's next ten snaps went for at least 20 yards.

Trey Burton for 80, touchdown.  Tie game.  Bray intercepted.  Mike Gillislee for 45, then Jeff Driskel to Jordan Reed for 23 and a touchdown two plays later.  Florida leads.  Tennessee punts on 4th and 2 at midfield.  Defense actually makes a stop, but the Vols go three and out.  Then on 3rd and 7 at their own 25, it's Driskel to Frankie Hammond for 75 and a touchdown.  Gillislee ran for 33 on the first play of the next drive just to twist a familiar knife.

Up 20-13 with three minutes left in the third.  Down two touchdowns with ten minutes left in the game.  This is how Florida uses the Fulmerizer on us.

It's happened so many times.  21-0 start in 1993.  31-0 final in 1994.  48 straight points in 1995, then a 35-0 lead in 1996.  24-0 start in 2002.  The game's final 31 points in 2007 and its first 27 points in 2008.

The last 24 points in 2012 weren't the hardest to take; those were elite mid-90s Vol teams that went into the Ballcoach's wood chipper.  But in its own painful way, 2012 was one of the longer walks out of Neyland Stadium.  Because we didn't just have them.  We thought we were about to open both barrels on them.  Instead we discovered our defense was already shot, it just hadn't fallen over yet.

But more than the way the game played out, 2012 hurt because we'd spent the entire off-season convincing ourselves this was the year.  We were back in the Top 25, back on ESPN at 9:00 AM, and back in general.

When A.J. Johnson chest-bumped Alex Bullard in the end zone, we were back.  And then we weren't.  And then it was over, for us and, deep down, for Derek Dooley.  I couldn't say anything nice, so I spent six days not saying anything at all on this site.  Other than being out of the country or on my honeymoon it's the longest I've ever gone without writing at RTT.

Things being over for Derek Dooley meant starting over again, which in the minds of many of us walking out of Neyland Stadium that night meant having to wait another three years for just the chance to be back again.  How long would it be before we got a game like that again?

But to our great and happy surprise, all we had to do was wait for Florida to come knocking at our gates again.

You know all that's changed at Tennessee between then and now, beginning and ending with the man standing on the sideline.  Florida beat LSU 14-6, Missouri 14-7, and Louisiana-Lafayette 27-20, lost to Georgia 17-9, then lost to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.  Then they went 4-8.  Now they're a wobbly 2-1 with three overtimes against Kentucky and a historic blowout at Alabama.

Chris said it best earlier this week:  the scariest thing about Florida is their uniforms.  But so much blood has been shed so fast by so many Gators wearing those uniforms, you'll have to forgive us if we're still a little afraid Jeff Driskel might turn into Danny Wuerffel, Demarcus Robinson into Chris Rainey or Dante Fowler into Alex Brown.

The old Florida fear runs deep in Big Orange Country.  But just as it was two years ago, on the day before hope runs even stronger.  And it is accelerating rapidly.

Last time it was Gameday and Johnny Majors' jersey retirement.  This time it's #checkerneyland and Third Down For What (I know Lil Jon is supposed to be in South Africa, but we do have a giant jumbotron, you know...).  And there's more:  Butch Jones will have 200+ unofficial visitors in the house Saturday.  And the only place Butch has out-distanced his predecessor faster than in recruiting is with alumni:  350+ former players are expected back this weekend to take part in the Vol Walk and the run through the T.

Every star that could possibly be aligned is burning our shade of orange.  Volunteer fans in orange and white will enter Neyland Stadium at high noon to give their all for Tennessee, believing in the great folklore of sports that we as fans can make a difference.  We will come feeling the old familiar butterflies when we see it is, in fact, Florida's uniforms standing on the other sideline.  And we will ask ourselves the same question we've been asking for the last decade:  Is today the day?  We will ask, "Will it?"  And then we will try to will it.

The pure potential of days like Saturday make college football the best in the world.  Just the chance to believe in victory in a game like this so soon in Butch Jones' tenure is a gift.  To actually win it would in many ways be better than we can imagine because it's been so long since we did it requires a little imagination to begin with.

But maybe the best news of all?  I don't think much of any of this matters to the team wearing orange tomorrow.

Team 118 is too young to know any better, too inexperienced to know any different, and most importantly, not burdened with the past like we are.  Neither is Butch Jones.  They don't know about the team that wins the rushing battle wins the game.  And almost none of them carry the scars of this rivalry, and the ones who do are like the man standing in the end zone two years ago:  now at the peak of their powers, and ready for change.

When Team 118 gets down, they're not fated to stay there.  Could have rolled over against Oklahoma, but gave themselves a chance to make it interesting.  Could have stayed down when Georgia rallied at 21-10, or when Justin Worley went down, or when Jalen Hurd fumbled in the end zone.  But they fought to the final snap.  This team didn't have to be taught how to counter-punch.  They were born with it.

So if Florida strikes first?  You and me might get the pit in our stomachs.  But this team, made up of a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and a few critical upperclassmen?  So far, all they know is to keep swinging.

There are never any guarantees; the last time a young and confident Tennessee squad faced the Gators they lost Justin Hunter on the first series and never recovered.  The most important key to a Tennessee victory tomorrow is keeping Justin Worley upright.  Do that, and Tennessee is going to connect on a lot more of its punches.  But I think those punches, now more than at any point in the last decade, have a great chance to knock the Gators out.

In 24 hours what has a chance to be a darn good Tennessee football team will work like heck to get those Gators.  You and me will bring our hope.  And this time, Tennessee is bringing a little more than that.

By one or one hundred, victory will be a celebration.

But I'd keep the Fulmerizer close by.  We might finally get to use it for good instead of evil.

Go Vols.