As Vols visit Florida, Gators coach Billy Napier could really use a rivalry win

AP photo by John Raoux / Florida football coach Billy Napier encourages his players during the Gators' win against McNeese last Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. The Gators host 11th-ranked Tennessee this weekend in the SEC opener for both teams and a matchup of East Division rivals.
AP photo by John Raoux / Florida football coach Billy Napier encourages his players during the Gators' win against McNeese last Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. The Gators host 11th-ranked Tennessee this weekend in the SEC opener for both teams and a matchup of East Division rivals.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A week after winning for the first time in their past five outings on the football field, the Florida Gators have a chance to end another four-game slide, and this one is arguably more important.

The Gators (1-1) have dropped four consecutive rivalry games, having gone 0-4 against Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in 2022 during coach Billy Napier's first season in Gainesville. They will try to halt the skid against 11th-ranked Tennessee (2-0) when the Volunteers visit the Swamp on Saturday night.

It's the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

"It's a big week," Napier said. "Any time you play a rival, it's a big game. Eastern Division opponent, SEC game. When it comes to the SEC, there's magnitude here as a program."

Napier became the first football coach in Gators history to lose to all four of those aforementioned rivals in the same season. The Gainesville tenures of Jim McElwain (2015-17), Will Muschamp (2011-14) and Ron Zook (2002-04) all ended in disappointing fashion, but all three of them managed to avoid the dubious feat.

Napier clearly understands the stakes. He spent considerable time during training camp educating his players about their rivals, showing highlight videos from games dating back decades and bringing in guest lecturers who have experienced wins and losses in those all-important series.

Gators greats Kevin Carter, Mike Peterson and Brandon Spikes were among those who spoke. The trio enjoyed plenty of success against the Vols in their heydays, winning a combined 10 of 12 matchups.

"For me, it's understanding the emotion behind it, the passion," said Florida quarterback Graham Mertz, who transferred from Wisconsin and the Big Ten. "I've been a part of rivalries. Just understanding the newness of it. For me, it's gaining that appreciation for what's come before me, really being able to honor that."

Carter (1991-94) and Peterson (1995-98) lost just once to Tennessee under coach Steve Spurrier. Spikes (2006-09) won all four meetings under coach Urban Meyer.

Spurrier tormented rivals over the years, whether it was with high-scoring offenses or with not-so-playful barbs and one-liners. Meyer was more passive-aggressive, putting logos in urinals and refusing to call certain opponents by name.

Napier is taking a more systematic approach.

"We did some work there relative to going back and really educating everyone on the history and the magnitude of the game," he said. "'Do you understand that this was THE GAME at one point in time in college football relative to the SEC, the Eastern Division and certainly the national championship picture?'"

The Florida-Tennessee winner advanced to the SEC title games 12 times in 17 years from 1993 to 2009. Two-time reigning national champion Georgia has since become the team to beat in the East, having won the division five of the past six years.

The Gators and Vols have the potential to close the gap on the Bulldogs. Napier, though, has some doubters.

For context, consider other coaches who, like Napier, are in their second seasons at their current programs.

While TCU's Sonny Dykes, LSU's Brian Kelly and USC's Lincoln Riley enjoyed immediate turnarounds last season, others have taken more time but are showing signs of being on the right track. Miami's Mario Cristobal, Washington State's Jake Dickert and Duke's Mike Elko notched signature wins early this season.

Napier, meanwhile, has lost six consecutive games to teams ranked in the AP Top 25 since beating Utah to open the 2022 season. He was the first Florida coach since Charley Pell in 1979 to have a losing record in his debut season, and barring wins against at least some of Florida's rivals this season, he's unlikely to find the same kind of second-year success in Gainesville enjoyed by Spurrier, Meyer, Muschamp and Dan Mullen — Napier's immediate predecessor.

Those guys really excelled against Tennessee, which has lost 16 of the past 18 meetings against Florida.

Coming off a victory in Knoxville last season, the Vols are trying to win consecutive games in the series for the first time since 2003-04. They most recently won in the Swamp in 2003, and the run of frustration at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has saddled them with a nine-game skid over two decades that the Gators would like to extend.

Napier doesn't need any history lessons himself regarding this series. His father's family hailed from Tennessee, and he grew up admiring Spurrier, a Volunteer State native.

"When your dad's a high school coach, the parts of the country that my family's from, the era that I grew up in, Florida-Tennessee was a big deal at that point in time," Napier said. "Pretty well-versed in this one."

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