November 29, 2022

Florida week: trepidation vs. enthusiasm

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So here we are. For Tennessee football fans, this is called “Gator Haters’ Week,” though, some will tell you that’s every week.

Florida fans will tell you that this is “Annual Beat Tennessee Week.” Gator fans can say that because it largely is true. Since 1984, the Vols are 6-25 against Florida. If you are a Tennessee fan, you bet that’s frustrating.

But each year, in the middle of September, UT has a chance to remedy that, though 16 of the last 17 years, it hasn’t turned out so well. Is UT better this year? I’d like to think so. They rolled up 676 yards against Akron Saturday night in a 63-6 victory, more than covering the spread, for those of you interested in that type of thing.

In three games, the Vols have scored 156 points and compiled 1,661 total yards. Sure, two of those games were glorified scrimmages against overmatched opponents, but UT did pick off a road win against a ranked Pittsburgh team. UT is 3-0 for the first time since 2016. All these are positive markers.

Yes, the Vols have been impressive thus far, but how much do we really know about them? In each game, there has been a healthy mix of good and bad. Why do I feel that this team isn’t completely sharp? Even Saturday night, it seemed the Vols did a few things that waved some yellow flags.

When you’ve lost 26 of the last 31 to your principal division rival, there isn’t much latitude for sloppy play or lack of execution. For some reason, Florida has UT’s number. It’s in UT’s head. Why? I don’t know. Spurrier left and the Gators were still nettlesome with Ron Zook, Will Muschamp, and Jim McElwain running the show. If the Vols couldn’t right the ship against those guys, you have to wonder what’s going on.

There are times, going back to the mid 1980s, when UT, with equal or superior talent, faced Florida and lost…and sometimes badly. The 1995 game comes to mind. The Vols led 30-21 at the half and were destroyed in the second half, eventually losing 62-37. 

Florida seems to find a way against Tennessee.

But could the stars be lining up for the Vols? Florida has a new coach in Billy Napier and his stats have been up and down since he arrived. Some wonder if he has the chops to coach in the SEC. Dan Mullen left the Gators somewhat barren in the recruiting-wise, so some suggest that depth may be a problem. The Gators have three pretty good running backs and a quarterback in Anthony Richardson, but he’s been Jekyll and Hyde. He had 114 yards rushing in an upset victory over No. 7 Utah, but only 4 rushing yards in a home loss to Kentucky.

UT’s kryptonite has been the slant pattern and running quarterbacks. But the defense has put heat on opposing quarterbacks so far. If the Vols can force Richardson to pass and pressure him into mistakes, it could be a long night for the Gators. But if the Vols let him squirt loose, the same could be true for UT.

Everything seems to be trending UT’s way. I believe this is a must-win game for the program. Why? It will lend credibility the program needs moving forward. It will further galvanize a warming, but still-cautious, fan base. It also will put the Vols into the conversation for a shot at heading to Atlanta and perhaps representing the SEC in a major bowl. The Sugar has been mentioned.

A loss would really let the wind out of the sails. Fans will groan, “it’s the same ole same ole” and the enthusiasm for what’s going on will take a major hit. Meanwhile, pundits will heap criticism on UT, calling head coach Josh Heupel gimmicky and the improvement is smoke and mirrors. 

I’ve said since the day after the Music City Bowl that I thought the Vols would win this game and go on to a 10-2 season. I’ve been very clear about that. But it is the SEC and anything can happen. If the Vols want to prove they are heading back in the right direction, Saturday is the perfect place to start. It’s time the Vols picked up a signature victory. Everything seems to be aligned for it.

Sadly, we’ve seen too often how this movie ends. The time is now to reverse that trend.

Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m., Mon.-Thurs. on 95.9 FM, WRJB, Camden.

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