It’s Florida Week

By Mark Nagi

On Saturday night the Tennessee Volunteers head to Gainesville to face one of their biggest rivals, the Florida Gators.

First, how good of an opening lede was that for this article?  No way that AI takes this writer’s position for at least 18 months.

Secondly, with all due respect to South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia, this might end up as the biggest game of the season for Tennessee.

Think about last season. The Vols hung on for a 38-33 win over the Gators at Neyland Stadium. That was Tennessee’s first victory over Florida since 2016 and only their second such win in 19 years.  Tennessee improved to 4-0, and ended up 11-2, their best record in two decades.

Knocking off Florida was more proof that Tennessee was finally ready for prime time.

This season the Vols will play in The Swamp, which has been their house of horrors for decades. UT has lost there 9 straight times. Not since Casey Clausen led the Vols to wins in 2001 and 2003 has Tennessee left victorious.

They’ve been blown out multiple times and lost in devastating fashion as well. More specifically, the 2015 and 2017 losses defy all logic. If you’ve forgotten those, good for you. Your mental state is stronger than mine.

But like Mark McGwire at his Congressional hearing, I’m not here to talk about the past.

This article was written before Week 2 action, but barring something wild, Tennessee enters this game 2-0 and ranked in the top 10, with Florida at 1-1.

Tennessee looked solid in its 49-13 win over Virginia while Florida got soundly beaten at Utah 24-11, in a game that was not as close as that result. The Gators hadn’t played an out of conference game out of the state of Florida in over 30 years, and it might be another three decades before they try to do that again.

The Vols offense was clicking against UVA, racking up 499 yards. Florida could only account for 346 yards against the Utes, including a paltry 13 rushing yards.

Tennessee is deeper, more talented and has better coaching than Florida. They are a better team and will be favored to snap their decades long drought in Gainesville.

That said… if you are a Tennessee fan, you don’t have complete confidence that the final score will be different this time. There is just too much bad history there. Maybe it’s a good thing that this hasn’t always been an annual meeting. They only played 19 times between the start of this series in 1916 and 1990. Since then, Tennessee and Florida have played every year.

The Gators lead this all-time series 31-21.  But that could change with Tennessee seemingly on the upward trajectory, and Florida’s head coach is already on the hot seat. Billy Napier is under pressure even though he is only in his second season in charge. His 7-8 start has not pleased Florida fans, and if this season turns into a disaster the Gators might make a move.

A win on Saturday night could really turn up the heat in that regard.

If Tennessee beats Florida, they’ll be 3-0 and have a terrific chance of being 5-0 heading into the bye week. Considering how mediocre Tennessee football has been over the last 20 years, something like that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It’s Florida week. Pace yourself.