Wiedmer: Irma's effects mean more than UT-UF football

Wiedmer: Irma's effects mean more than UT-UF football

September 12th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee defensive lineman Kendal Vickers was one of four players listed as questionable by Vols coach Butch Jones heading into Saturday's home opener against Indiana State.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

The words were honest and blunt. As he answered questions from the media following Tennessee's 42-7 football victory over Indiana State on Saturday, defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said of the Florida program the Volunteers will face this weekend: "We know the rivalry. We don't like them and they don't like us."

Where such mutual animosity began no doubt is open to debate. Relative old-timers might point to 1969, when Florida lured its alumnus Doug Dickey away from coaching the Vols at the close of that season to coaching the Gators.

The move probably cost Tennessee the Gator Bowl, of all bowls, that season, since Florida's players were determined to send Ray Graves out with a victory over Dickey, who would soon become their coach following that 14-13 UF bowl win.

And quite surprisingly — given Dickey's shimmering 46-15-4 (.738) record at UT and the Vols' five consecutive bowl invitations at a time when you needed much more than a winning record to receive one — he did not duplicate that success with his alma mater, going 58-43-2 with the Gators.

So by the time he was done at Florida following the 1978 season, UF fans probably were as upset with Dickey as UT's fan base had been in 1969 when the best coach they ever had not named Neyland abandoned them for the Sunshine State.

Butch Jones and the Vols enter the T to take the field. The Indiana State Sycamores visited the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in NCAA football action of September 9, 2017.

Butch Jones and the Vols enter the T...

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Still, it's a Tennessee native whose name rhymes with "furrier" and who played for Florida that cemented this annual "Third Saturday in September" as one of the most bitter contests on the Southeastern Conference calendar.

Until Steve Spurrier took over the Gators in 1990, UT owned a 13-6 record against Florida, though it had lost the last four it had played against UF before the Ol' Ball Coach arrived. But after the Vols spanked the Gators 45-3 in Knoxville during Spurrier's first season in Gainesville, everything changed. Florida not only won eight of the next 11 with Spurrier in charge, it had won 11 in a row before UT snapped that streak in fine fashion last season, rallying from a 21-3 hole to win 38-28.

But will that Big Orange win beget a long UT winning streak or merely return to the pattern of the games played between these two from 1985 to 1993, when the home team won every time?

"It's always great to go on the road and beat anybody in their home stadium," senior tight end Ethan Wolf told the assembled media during Monday's weekly UT news conference. "Especially the Swamp. No matter where the game is played, this is a deep, traditional rival we're facing."

While the Vols no doubt would love to win in the Swamp for the first time since 2003, both sides probably most would love simply to see this game played this weekend, whether it be at Gainesville, Knoxville or somewhere in between.

Remember, it was just last year that Hurricane Matthew forced the postponement of the LSU-Florida game. When the league officials rescheduled it, they moved it from Gainesville to Baton Rouge, though Florida wound up winning anyway on its way to claiming the SEC East.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey could decide as early as today to move this weekend's UT-UF clash to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, though a pro soccer game would have to be moved to play the game on Saturday. Sunday is already out of the question because of the Green Bay-Atlanta NFL game scheduled for Sunday night in the $1.5 billion facility.

As for looking for another weekend, Florida's off Saturday (Oct. 21) comes when UT is at Alabama and UT's off week (Oct. 7) comes when the Gators host LSU. So it's pretty much this week or bust, regardless of where they play it. The guess here is that the game remains in Gainesville on Saturday or Sunday.

But with Mercedes-Benz possibly on the table, and it somewhat a neutral site despite the Vols having just played there, it might also be a relief to Florida officials — not Florida fans, but officials — not to have so little time to clean out from under Irma in three or four short days.

And Irma and its aftermath should be front and center here, regardless of the shared bitterness this game produces.

Particularly for Gator Nation, this is a week of sadness, frustration, anger and hurt, regardless of which team wins the football game. Property is surely damaged, some of it beyond repair. Personal stress is certain. Physical and emotional damage highly possible. The outcome of a football game rapidly loses importance under such dire possibilities.

That said, at some point this game is all but 100 percent certain to be played. And when it is, expect UT to win — 20-17 on a field goal by Aaron Medley, who has yet to kick one this season.

Then hope that the Big Orange Nation mutes its celebration in deference to Irma's wrath. Because no matter how much college football means in the SEC, empathy and sympathy should always mean more.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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