published Monday, September 10th, 2012

Tennessee Vols gun for Gators: UT-Florida matchup generating big hype

KNOXVILLE -- Dallas Thomas was one of the first Tennessee starters to leave the Volunteers' blowout win on Saturday afternoon.

The Volunteers' left guard certainly kept paying attention to his coaches and teammates finishing Tennessee's 51-13 rout of overmatched Georgia State, but it was only human nature for his eyes to wander around Neyland Stadium at the crowd, the promotional pieces on the big video board and the scoreboard flashing what was happening elsewhere.

The fifth-year senior admitted he was looking for once score in particular, the one that read "Florida 20, Texas A&M 17."

"I was out kind of early, so I was already peeping it myself," Thomas said with a grin after the game. "I wish I could have seen it. A lot of guys didn't look at it.

"I think I was the only that was."

As if the Vols' showdown with the Gators next Saturday in Knoxville wasn't big enough already, two more buckets of kerosene got thrown on the fire on Sunday. Tennessee is ranked for the first time since losing at UCLA to open the 2008 season, as the Vols entered the Associated Press poll at No. 23 after Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma State all lost and fell out of the poll. Shortly after the poll was released, ESPN announced it would broadcast its popular Saturday-morning traveling program "College GameDay" live from Knoxville.

The 18th-ranked Gators enter the game riding a wave of confidence of their own after a second-half comeback to beat the Southeastern Conference newcomers on the road Saturday.

"Deep and talented football team," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said on his coach's show Sunday. "They had a great win on the road, they've proven they can do it and we hadn't beat them in a while. We've got our work cut out for us."

Dooley said there's "plenty" for his team to work on this week. The Vols' focus figures to make a big jump from last week, when the matchup with an inferior opponent sandwiched between two big games caused a natural dip in the approach. Tennessee didn't practice well last Tuesday before bouncing back later in the week, and the Vols lacked "spunk" on Saturday, Dooley said.

"No matter how much you want to focus for this game, it's still pretty tough because you've got such a tough opponent coming up next week," said safety Brian Randolph, who also admitted to seeing the Florida score during the game. "It's hard not to overlook Georgia State. But I think for the most part we did a good job of concentrating on this game."

Tennessee turned its full attention to the Gators on Sunday, and it'll hit the practice field this morning. A win would give the Vols their first 3-0 start since 2004, which was also the last time they beat their divisional rival. Florida has won seven consecutive games in the annual early-season showdown.

"I know we want to beat them bad," said receiver Justin Hunter, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tennessee's fourth offensive play of last season's 33-23 loss in Gainesville. "I know I was out last year so I couldn't play them like I wanted to. I think this game's going to mean a lot to us."

The Vols were a young, confident bunch heading into that game last season, but Hunter's injury, a nonexistent running game, the road atmosphere and a healthy Florida team started Tennessee's season-long tailspin.

"I just don't want to feel it again," quarterback Tyler Bray said. "Hopefully we can get them this year. They've got a great defense returning.

"They beat Texas A&M [Saturday] so they've got a good win. We've got a couple of good wins. It's going to be a good game."

Some Tennessee players took to Twitter on Sunday to display their excitement for the week ahead, be it the new ranking or the hype of ESPN coming to town. The atmosphere around the 6 p.m. kickoff will be wild, and the hype could make it the biggest game of Dooley's three-year tenure at Tennessee. A loss would make all of it for naught, but a win would be a big step toward the Vols' self-proclaimed goal of bringing the program back to its rightful spot.

Expect coaches and players to downplay Saturday night's magnitude, though.

"It's a big game," Thomas said, "but we don't want to look at it as a big game. We're just going to come out and prepare the same way we did for this opponent. We're going to prepare the same way for [Florida]."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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