Vols see chance for big leap

Vols see chance for big leap

September 15th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Florida running back Chris Rainey (1) runs past Tennessee defensive back Prentiss Waggner (23) on his way to an 83-yard touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Gainesville, Fla. Florida won 33-23.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

No. 18 Florida (2-0, 1-0 SEC) at Tennessee (2-0, 0-0)

6:01 p.m. tonight * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * ESPN/106.5 FM

The matchup

The battle in the trenches is always key in this annual rivalry, and this year is no exception. Florida's front seven will be the best Tennessee's faced this year, and the Gators' offensive line will want to establish a rushing attack with tailback Mike Gillislee. The Gators beat up Vols quarterback Tyler Bray last season, and Tennessee must keep Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and others off its quarterback while establishing enough of a ground game to keep Florida's defense honest.

"It's a real focus, just the run game and handling the line of scrimmage in general," Tennessee center James Stone said. "That's their strength, and we have to make it our strength. We have to go against them and win the line of scrimmage in order to win this football game."

One to watch

Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. The Gators' sophomore must play well again for Florida's offense to succeed against a Tennessee defense that has been suspect to start games this season. The former five-star recruit was 13-of-16 passing for 162 yards and some key plays with his legs in Florida's comeback win at Texas A&M last week. He gained experience and confidence in that hostile road environment last week.

"I think going into the game, he had a little nerves," first-year Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. "As the game went along, he got better, he got more comfortable. He started seeing things on the defense better."

In the end

Tennessee's offense enters this game off two 500-yard performances, and the Vols' passing game is clicking with Bray, receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Mychal Rivera. The Vols could struggle running the ball against Florida's defense, Florida has a big advantage in the kicking game. For Tennessee's defense, it's about stopping Gilislee, the SEC's leading rusher through two games, and forcing Driskel to make plays in unfavorable situations. Florida already has one big road win this season, but Tennessee fans will be plenty juiced up for this one. Amid all the matchups in this showdown, the way Bray and Co. are playing is too hard to ignore.

Prediction

Tennessee 31, Florida 21

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's players have been talking about the goal since the summer.

After two small steps forward, the Volunteers have a chance to take a big leap in the right direction.

From ESPN's "College GameDay" coming to town and entering the Top 25 polls to the front pages of national sports websites and talking heads on television, Tennessee has returned to national relevancy for at least a week.

The only way to stay there and create more opportunities later in the season to put the program back to its traditional spot is to beat Florida tonight in what's sure to be an electric atmosphere with a sellout crowd in Neyland Stadium.

"Since this summer, that's one thing the seniors on the team have been stressing," said cornerback Prentiss Waggner, one of those seniors. "They've been stressing just putting Tennessee back on the map. I think a win over Florida and a good season will do that."

The Vols will play nine games and seven Southeastern Conference opponents after tonight. A win would only increase the magnitude of a likely matchup of unbeaten teams at Georgia in two weeks. A loss wouldn't ruin the season, but it would be a big speed bump in Tennessee's path back from the struggles of recent seasons.

Derek Dooley, the Vols' third-year coach, always has downplayed any discussion of any game being the biggest of his tenure. This one, though, will all of the non-football hoopla, might be the most hyped game he's ever coached at Tennessee. Dooley does not diminish the importance of tonight's showdown, and the players obviously see a big chance in front of them.

"I think it would get us all motivated and all juiced and spring us forward for the rest of this season," safety Brian Randolph said. "It'd give us the energy that we need. I believe it's a big game.

"I think it's a turning point in the season, and it could have a lot to do with how the season goes."

Tennessee hasn't started 3-0 since 2004, which was also the last year it beat Florida. This rivalry typically determined who would win the SEC East Division during its heyday in the 1990s, and this year's winner would have a leg up in an open race that includes seventh-ranked Georgia and No. 8 South Carolina. The loser would find itself in a hole with more daunting games ahead.

"The more you win, the more important they become," Dooley said. "That's how it is.

"The more you lose, the more important they become," he continued with a laugh. "They're all important. If we win, we've got a lot more games left on the schedule. If we don't win, the sky's not going to fall. We've got to regroup, learn from it and go play the rest of the schedule.

"We'll find a little bit more about our football team this week."

If there's one thing the Vols already know about themselves, it's their confidence. It's the same way they felt heading to Gainesville to play Florida last season. They left battered and bruised after star receiver Justin Hunter's season-ending injury, a minus-9-yard rushing performance and a 33-23 loss.

"It's a great question," Dooley said when asked about the difference in his team from this point a year ago. "We were 2-0, we were feeling good, we were chucking the ball around the park, thought we were pretty good and went down there and got our tails whipped. It's a great question.

"We'll answer it after the game."

Dooley isn't big on streaks, including Florida's seven-year run of dominance in this series. From the rushing yards to big plays on special teams, the Gators have owned Tennessee during this stretch and won the past five meetings by double digits. Florida has two national titles during that stretch, while the Vols have had four losing seasons.

None of those games will impact tonight's game, though.

"I think we just need to approach it like another game," nose tackle Daniel Hood said. "We just need to see it as they're a good team, they're going to be tough, not get caught up in that we haven't beaten them since '04 and just go out and execute against them. Florida's a good team, so any time you beat a good team, it makes you look better.

"We've earned the right to be confident in what we're doing."

With a win tonight, the Vols would gain even more confidence and take another step toward doing what they set out to do: Bring Tennessee football back.

"This is the second season we've gotten to Florida and we're 2-0, and everybody's like, 'OK, what are they going to do?'" linebacker Jacques Smith said. "We're just going to show what we've been doing. We've been working hard, we've been giving relentless effort, and that's what Tennessee is about.

"A win over Florida, it'll definitely change the atmosphere here at UT. I think we've already begun doing that. But it'll establish a certain foundation within the SEC, and especially our side, the East, that Tennessee's going to be tough to deal with."