The Tennessee-Florida rivalry has been one-sided for the better part of the last 20 years, with the Gators taking full advantage of the Volunteers’ struggles as a program. Through the end days of Phillip Fulmer, one year of Lane Kiffin, the disastrous Dooley era — Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt — it’s been a bad couple of decades. Through that time, Florida has won a couple of national titles. Even in down years, the Volunteers have figured out a way to be worse.
For the first time in a long time, however, Tennessee has a true identity. Josh Heupel has transformed the program in just 20 short months, giving the Volunteers one of the best offenses in America.
Now Florida has also jumped into a new regime, too. Dan Mullen completely fell apart down the stretch last season, and his odd comments and quirky behavior over the past two years forced a change.
Billy Napier will make his debut in the rivalry on Saturday leading the Gators, but he’s hardly unfamiliar with Knoxville.
“I think the veteran players on our team will be comfortable with (going on the road),” Napier said on Monday. “I was just having conversations yesterday with some of the guys that have played here. Obviously (I) have played (at Tennessee) in the past, in those times at Alabama. I think we understand what comes with that.
“It’s not like we’re going to Canada and they’re going to change the rules,” Napier said. “It’s going to be the same game. It’s going to be a little louder. And playing at a different location.”
Napier coached at Alabama in 2011, and then again from 2013-2016.
I understand what Napier is trying to say, but Tennessee fans have had fun with that last comment over the last 12 hours. College Gameday will be in Knoxville for the matchup, and plans to ‘checker’ Neyland have already been announced. For such a hungry fanbase — downright starved in this particular rivalry — it’s tough to put into words what Saturday means. I probably wouldn’t poke that bear.
The unique part for Napier is that he understands the Tennessee side as well. Napier was born just down the road in Cookeville and still has family in East Tennessee to this day. That’s got to be just a little awkward, considering how Napier describes them.
“Man, I’ve got all kinds of family that are diehard Tennessee fans,” Napier admitted. “So, yeah. My uncle’s family and all that crew, living in Crossville. My mom and dad went to Tennessee Tech. We moved to Georgia when I was about two years old. So my mom’s parents owned a tobacco farm in Sparta, Tennessee. My dad grew up in Celina, Tennessee. So yeah, know all about the Vols for sure.”
Through Tennessee’s numerous coaching searches, Napier’s name always popped up in the rumor mill considering those strong Tennessee ties. Nothing ever materialized there, as Napier sat and waited for the right opportunity while at Louisiana. Ironically he ends up with one of Tennessee’s biggest rivals, creating quite the family dynamic.
Napier went 40-12 during his time at Louisiana, including Sun Belt titles in 2020 and 2021. He started his Florida career with a bang, knocking off then No. 7 Utah in week one. The Gators dropped a home game to Kentucky in week two, and held off South Florida’s upset bid in week three.
Florida will enter Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon as ten point underdogs.