Wiedmer: Not like old days, but Gators, Vols in Top 25

Wiedmer: Not like old days, but Gators, Vols in Top 25

September 11th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Things are looking up for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and his team, but he and the Vols know there's a lot of season left to play.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- It may only have been Monday, but Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley was leaving nothing to chance regarding Saturday's visit from No. 18 Florida.

Referring to a fellow UT athletic department employee who Dooley believed already was struggling to maintain proper perspective, the third-year coach said, "[He's] already caught up in the external clutter. He's already lost focus."

Once was the time the Vols versus the Gators was the focus of the entire college football universe. From 1995 until this past season the game always was televised by either ABC or CBS, the last 16 times on the Giant Eye. Five of those were prime-time affairs.

Just as impressive is the fact that both teams were ranked in the top 10 in eight of those contests. On four occasions, both were ranked in the top five.

And just to prove the pollsters sometimes know their business, the higher ranked team has won 10 of those 17 meetings, though that's somewhat skewed by the Gators' seven straight wins, the last six of those coming as the favorites.

But for Volniacs looking for a reason to feel good about their No. 23 Clorox Orange warriors come 6 o'clock Saturday night, the lower ranked team won five of eight from 1995 to 2002. Beyond that, of UT's four wins in those 17 meetings, three came when Florida was ahead of them in the polls.

And despite ESPN televising this one instead of CBS, America's most bloated family of networks is giving the contest its top-drawer treatment by bringing "College GameDay" to Rocky Top for the first time since 2004.

(Never mind that Auburn won that one 34-10. The Vols shook off that disappointment well enough to reach that year's SEC title game, though they again fell to the Tigers.)

It's all become so exciting so quickly that redshirt freshman offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said of the upcoming pageantry, "When I saw 'GameDay' was coming, I got chills."

Yet the last four UT seasons and last two Florida campaigns also apparently have left a big chill in both programs' supporters.

First came news from UT in July that enough tickets remained for the Florida and Alabama games that the school was offering to package either of them with two other home games in something called the "Tennessee Triple Option" for the bargain price of $150 per ticket packet.

That was followed by last week's announcement that the Neyland Stadium concession stands were reducing certain items, cutting 20-ounce bottled water from $4 to $3 and slicing Domino's Pizza from $8.50 to $7.

Too bad your health care provider doesn't market his wares at Neyland.

But the most surprising news may have arrived Monday, when UT announced that "because a significant portion of the [Florida] allotment has been returned, tickets remain, including some lower-level tickets. Fans can purchase tickets by visiting UTTix.com or calling 1-800-332-VOLS."

Are you kidding me? Both the Vols and Gators are ranked and lower-level tickets remain? In the old days you would have been more likely to see UT coach Phillip Fulmer and Florida boss Steve Spurrier tailgating together than unsold tickets for the Third Saturday in September.

But these aren't those times. This time there are still tickets to be sold and fan bases to be won over and two opposing coaches who may indeed be former Nick Saban assistants but have thus far struggled to emulate Saint Nick's winning percentage.

Still, when speaking of second-year Florida coach Will Muschamp -- long a close Dooley friend -- the UT coach said, "Will's starting to get his team to look the way he wants them to look. They're starting to play Muschamp ball."

And the Vols presumably are starting to look the way Dooley wants them to look.

"We keep emphasizing coming out strong to start the second half, and we've done that the last two weeks," he said. "We just need to keep focusing on what we need to do and not all this external drama. GameDay's great. But these guys haven't come to Tennessee not to be on a big stage. The best exposure for this program is to win."

Otherwise, the external clutter will focus more and more on unsold tickets, discounted pizza slices and whether there needs to be a coaching change on Rocky Top.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.