Since the 1990s, the Florida Gators have been an unavoidable thorn in the side of Tennessee football.
The most recent win streak from 2005 to 2015 exacerbated an already hate-fueled rivalry, borne from similar losses during the “Golden Age” of Tennessee football under then head coach Phil Fulmer. Even during matchups when it looked like Tennessee had all the advantages, somehow the Gators would pull through and come out with a victory. It didn’t matter who was under center or who wore the headset on the sidelines. From 1991 onwards, Florida has a decisive advantage within the rivalry.
If I sound negative on Tennessee’s recent history with Florida, it’s not without cause.
The Dark Ages of Volunteer football coinciding with Florida’s rise as a dominant power worked out almost too perfectly. Florida could control both the recruiting trail and the on-field results, leaving Tennessee as a perennial 2nd or 3rd place finisher in the SEC East. If that.
For the past decade, this has been undeniably true.
Yet the 2018 contest could be the first of a new era.
This could be said for a few of the past iterations of Florida-Tennessee. But this is the first contest since 1970 where both teams are breaking in new head coaches. The talent level of both programs is also very close, so Saturday’s game is a fairly good barometer for where each head coach stands in their program install.
On one side there’s Dan Mullen, who’s already allowed a 31-year streak to end, but who also has plenty of leeway for the future. Florida has experienced back-to-back head coaching failures which has drastically reduced program prestige. Now it’s not just development which has suffered, it’s how much talent they currently possess on the roster.
Take everything from the above paragraph and multiply it by 2 for Tennessee. From 4-win seasons to coaching instability to declining relevance, Florida and Tennessee are fundamentally similar programs.
Hence why Jeremy Pruitt can make a splash in the SEC if he can coach his team to victory.
The plans for Pruitt won’t change if he loses on Saturday. Tennessee is still committed to him for at least three years, and likely much longer if the team progresses like they expect it to. He’s still working with a group of players who were criminally underdeveloped by the previous staff.
If he wins? Then Pruitt will validate much of what he’s been saying to recruits, boosters, and fans alike.
Tennessee is already poised for a very good finish on the trail. Beating one of their divisional rivals, who’s also selling early playing time and a new culture, would be the cherry on top. Tennessee’s list of remaining targets is particularly star-studded, and it’s a group where more than a few members are in wait-and-see mode.
These are the types of players who could be convinced that Pruitt really is building up Tennessee for the future. If a 1st year head coach can beat a 10th year head coach in the same conference with a similar team, guess how that registers in their minds?
Others will wax poetic about this next point, but it’s remarkably simple to convey: beating one of your team’s biggest rivals makes you beloved on campus. It doesn’t matter if your rival is completely terrible. If you beat them, the fanbase becomes that much happier with your tenure. It’s not a stretch to say that Tennessee fans would be content with missing a bowl as long as it involved a victory over Florida.
Getting caught up in the number of wins and losses during the first year of a new head coach is a fool’s errand. So many variables change week-to-week in addition to the general uncertainty. Setting a hard number of wins does nothing but exaggerate expectations, when in reality the concern should be with progress over the season.
That being said, what better way to show progress than with a victory over a very similar program in your division? The truth is that as Tennessee heads into the meat of their SEC schedule, those signs of progress might be hard to come by. It’s not that Pruitt and staff aren’t properly coaching—it’s the reality of facing teams that aren’t trying to rebuild.
For more than a few reasons, Saturday’s contest against the Gators could go a long way in realizing Jeremy Pruitt’s plan. It’s not do-or-die. But it becomes that much easier with a victory.