For the first time in recent memory when the Volunteers visit Florida today, University of Tennessee fans everywhere can be excited about facing a big-name SEC foe. Think back over the last few years, and when was the last time UT fans were pumped about a road trip to Florida or Alabama or LSU?
Well, that excitement stems from sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and his ability to throw the football. While the rest of the Vols may be either too young or too thin depth-wise, Bray's gifts give UT hope against all comers. He's the football definition of the puncher's chance, and his big-play right arm can change everything -- good or bad -- in a moment.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who will work today's UT-Florida game for the sixth consecutive year, has been impressed by Bray's talent since he first saw it last year in practice.
Danielson, who was on a conference call with reporters this week, recalled a conversation with UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney last year when Danielson asked about Bray.
"[Chaney] said, 'He has no idea what he's doing yet. We've got to break him down a little bit, because he's so darn cocky, he thinks he knows it all. He thinks he can fit the ball in anywhere,'" Danielson said. "I have been touting him for a year and a half. He was my breakout-sleeper player of the SEC this year."
To be great, quarterbacks need to be cocky, especially in the huddle. No one follows timid or reserved. Certainly a sense of humility is fine in a son-in-law, but in a quarterback there needs to be a certain brashness, a certain self-belief that transcends the moment.
Bray's confidence stems from his ability, and it's insulated by some impressive numbers. He's one of only two Vols to have thrown multiple TD passes in eight consecutive games (the other is some guy named Manning). Bray has completed more than 78 percent of his throws for 698 yards and seven TDs without a pick. The stats are head-turning, indeed.
"It starts with his play, and it helps if you are going to be a leader, being able to walk the walk is important," UT coach Derek Dooley said this week. "He has certainly played two very good football games. That is the starting point."
That starting point could become a launching pad today. A win today would mean that come Monday, the Vols almost certainly would be ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since Week 1 of the 2008 season. A win today would be the program's first road win over a ranked team since 2007, and it would be its first win in the Swamp since midway through George W. Bush's first administration.
Bray is 6-1 as a starting quarterback for the Vols, but he's started as many games outside the state of Tennessee as you have, and before today his toughest road start was at Vanderbilt.
Danielson's admiration of Bray aside, a win today would give Bray his hat-hanging win that every big-time SEC quarterback notches.
No doubt Bray can jump-start the legend -- and even possibly the 2012 Heisman hype -- with a big performance today, but his physical tools have never been in question.
Let's not forget that the last time Bray started against an above-average defense (in last December's Music City Bowl against North Carolina), he fluctuated between doing the Loco dance, doing a throat slash and crying on the sideline with the game still going on after throwing an interception in overtime. Safe to say that emotionally stable was not in his toolbox 10 months ago.
How Bray passes the ball is not the concern today; how he passes the pressure test of the Gators defense -- and the Swamp in general -- will be very telling about him and the immediate future for his Vols.
A win today would speak volumes -- much louder and clearer than completion percentages or passing yards -- about Bray's growth as a player and a leader. A win today forces everyone to reshape the limits of Bray's potential and to readjust the timeline for the Vols' return to SEC revelance.
Today is as much about the development as it is the moment, and if Bray delivers in the latter the Vols will be even more eager for the future.