It’s officially Gator Hater week in East Tennessee.
Except, this year, Gator Hater week is true to its name. For most of the last decade, this week — which traditionally has fallen in the third week of September before being moved to October this season — could have been more aptly called Preparing for a Butt-Kicking week. But for perhaps the first time since Urban Meyer arrived on the scene in Gainesville nine years ago, Tennessee fans can legitimately walk into Saturday’s game against Florida at Neyland Stadium with a little swagger, with a bonafide expectation that their team will emerge victorious from the SEC East’s most bitter rivalry.
Entering the season, most Tennessee fans felt the Vols would be 2-2 after the first four games of the season, with wins over Utah State and Arkansas State and losses to Oklahoma and Georgia. That’s exactly where UT sits. Yet, polled today, most Tennessee fans would be more confident than they were at the first of the season.
Why? Much of it is the way the Vols have played in defeat. The 34-10 outcome in Norman earlier this month wasn’t close on paper, but Tennessee fought to the end. A pick-six in the fourth quarter made the game appear much more lopsided than it actually was, and UT fans will quickly point to three or four other plays that would have made the game even closer had the outcome been different.
Still, one never really got the feeling that Tennessee could seriously threaten the Sooners while watching that Sept. 13 game on ABC. This past Saturday, when the Vols came up on the short end of a 35-32 score against Georgia, the feeling was different. Against the Dawgs, Tennessee could have won…maybe should have won. In the end, Tennessee had two costly fumbles — one in the end zone for a Georgia touchdown, the other in the red zone to negate at least a field goal opportunity — that determined the outcome. But, even still, Tennessee’s coaches, players and fans alike will long wonder just what the outcome might have been if quarterback Justin Worley hadn’t missed most of the third quarter with an elbow injury.
What has been consistent during the two losses since Tennessee last played at home has been the play of the Vols’ defense and youngsters. More than a few Tennessee fans — including yours truly — wondered out loud during the off-season whether Jon Jancek might be the weak link in Tennessee’s coaching staff. Instead, the second year defensive coordinator is making a strong case for himself as one of the SEC’s best. With an infusion of young talent — Derek Barnett is one of the league’s best defensive linemen as a true freshman and Todd Kelly Jr. is coming on strong in the secondary, to name but a couple — the Vols are a completely different team on defense.
After being pummeled by opposing offenses in 2013, Tennessee’s defense is currently first in the nation on third down, allowing their opponents to convert just 20 percent of their third down tries. That stat is especially impressive when you pause to consider that the Vols have played the current No. 5 team and the current No. 13 team, both on the road, along with two mid-major teams that are fairly decent, as mid-major teams go.
Worley, meanwhile, continues to make a name for himself as one of the gutsiest signal-callers in Tennessee football history. More and more Vols fans are drawing comparisons with Andy Kelly, who led a supremely talented Tennessee team to a pair of SEC championships as the 1980s turned to the ’90s. And consider this: Worley played with gritty success against Oklahoma and Georgia despite being without two of his top three targets. Von Pearson showed against Utah State and against Arkansas State before going down with an ankle sprain that he’s not far behind Marquez North in his ability to make big plays, and Josh Smith might be the most underrated receiver in the SEC, the only Tennessee receiver who can get open consistently.
Of course, it isn’t fair to cherry-pick the good without also mentioning the bad: Tennessee’s running game leaves plenty to be desired, despite the breakout freshman campaign that Jalen Hurd is putting together. And the Vols’ offensive line is giving up way too much. Without some rapid improvement, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Worley fails to make it to the end of the season due to injury. It almost happened against Georgia, after all. And, let’s be honest: Florida’s defensive front is much better than Georgia’s.
Still, forgive Tennessee fans for being optimistic. They’ve watched the youngest team in the SEC play with a swagger that has been missing for a long time. As one UT alumnus messaged me today, “They may be young and they may get out-manned and even make mistakes, but by gosh they will fight!”
That’s why, heading into Saturday’s game against the hated Gators, Tennessee fans are chomping at the bit. Butch Jones already has his first “signature” win at Tennessee; that came against No. 11 South Carolina last October. But that Tennessee team still failed to make a bowl game, going on to get boat-raced in most of their remaining SEC games before losing to Vanderbilt on a bitterly cold night at Neyland Stadium.
A win over Florida this weekend, on the other hand, could be the catalyst for this program’s return to its SEC glory days. This program and its fans are desperate for a big win over any high-caliber team . . . and Florida, a long-time and bitter rival, would be the perfect opportunity. As one fan posted on a message board today, “If we don’t beat UF this weekend I will be devastated. I’m desperate for a win over UF.”
Of course any SEC football historian can point to at least a half-dozen reasons why Tennessee fans shouldn’t be counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Start with 2012, which was supposed to be when Derek Dooley’s UT team finally turned the corner. Then 2006, when the Vols had just finished boat-racing Cal and were yearning to reassert themselves as the SEC’s most dominant team. Then 2002. Then 1999. Then 1997. Then 1996, or 1995. Historically, when Tennessee has seemed to have an edge on Florida, the Gators have proven to have the Vols’ number.
But all those disappointments just make Tennessee fans want this one Saturday all the more.
That’s why Neyland Stadium is likely to be the loudest stadium in the SEC — perhaps the country — on Saturday afternoon. With Florida and Tennessee both down, this game has lost its luster and was passed over by CBS, ESPN (and ESPN’s SEC Network) for prime spots, winding up stuck in the noon position. Noon games aren’t conducive to loud stadiums, contrasted with night games that have given fans an entire day to get lathered up. But this one will be different. A couple of enterprising fans have undertaken an effort to transform Neyland Stadium into a giant checkerboard in a move that has been endorsed by the athletic department (you can see the Photoshop rendition of what it might look like above), the weather should be perfect (rain moving out late Friday with highs hovering near 70 degrees on Saturday), and Florida will be greeted by 102,000-plus fans making a constant roar that wells up from somewhere in the pits of their stomach in a desperate attempt to will their team to victory.
And if the Vols should win? This fan base has a lot of pent-up frustration waiting to be unleashed. Is a win over an unranked Florida team bigger than a win over Steve Spurrier’s Gators? I say yes. And, unlike 2012, when Florida visited Neyland for a night game during Derek Dooley’s final season in Knoxville, fans are expecting not merely hoping for a win.
Obviously it should be pointed out that Florida, which opened as a one-point favorite in Vegas (the Vols are currently a 1-2 point favorite, depending on which service you subscribe to), has a talent advantage at almost every position over the field. The Gators actually looked outstanding against a directional Michigan team to open the season, and didn’t play at all poorly against Alabama until the second half, when Lane Kiffin’s offense (yes, I held my nose when I typed that) wore down the Gator defense.
But two areas where the Vols seem to have an advantage are desire and coaching. Lose this game, my friends in Florida say, and Will Muschamp might as well pack his bags and put his Gainesville home on the market. Butch Jones, on the other hand, is so revered in Tennessee that some orange-clad fans are already starting to turn a nervous eye toward Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines’ Brady Hoke is planted firmly in the hot seat (Jones is a native of Michigan).
As for desire, there’s no doubt that Florida wants this game. Bad. Not only do they want it for their coach, but a win against Tennessee keeps the Gators very much alive in the hunt for the SEC East championship. But if 102,000 checkered Tennessee fans have anything to do with it, Saturday’s game will be a wakeup call for the rest of the nation: Here comes Butch Jones and a stable full of talented freshmen…get out of the way, or get run over.
How important is this game? Lose this one and Tennessee can still make it to a bowl game in 2014, though the road will begin to get rough. There’s still another Top 10 recruiting class headed to Knoxville in February, and the program is still moving in the right direction. But win it, and Jones will fully unite this fan base behind him, sending a message to the rest of the SEC that the circa-2005 Tennessee program is already back…and here to stay.