By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The rivalry is back.
Sure, Florida and Tennessee have played each other every single season since 1990, but the annual match-up has lost a bit of the fervor that filled each contest in the 1990s. Don’t you remember when the game, traditionally played on the third week of the season, was the Southeastern Conference’s premier early-season contest and often decided who would represent the Eastern Division in Atlanta?
Both teams are 2-0 entering the game, both are ranked among the nation’s top-25 teams. ESPN’s College Gameday is bringing its crew to Knoxville. This is the first time since 2007 that both teams in this series have been ranked at game time.
Those implications could be at stake this Saturday when the two teams meet at Neyland Stadium at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN.
You have to think College Gameday, which has featured an SEC team in each of its first three weeks, understands this significance of this year’s match-up between Florida and Tennessee.
After all, for the past three seasons, the focus has been on the SEC Western Division, and rightly so. The last three BCS national champions have come from the SEC West and, at one point last season, the top-three teams in the BCS standings came from the SEC Western Division.
And now, for the two Eastern Division foes, this Saturday’s game is as significant as it should be.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp knows there is a special excitement surrounding both the rivalry and this weekend’s game.
“They were two of the top-five teams in the 1990s,” Muschamp said Monday in his weekly press conference. “Basically, the third Saturday in September, whoever won that game had the leg up in the east. The winner of the game didn’t mean you were going to win the East, but it certainly helped you throughout the season. A lot of great players, great coaches and what Steve Spurrier did here in the 1990s has been unmatched as far as his success in a 12-year run.”
For the Vols, their No. 23 national ranking marks the first time that Tennessee has been ranked in the Associated Press poll since the 2008 season. Having watched from the press box in Atlanta as the Vols played in their season opener against N.C. State, it’s clear to me that Tennessee is a different team in 2012.
This season the potential to live up to the expectations Vol fans expect from their team.
“We have some basic program standards that we have kind of established and I think all the Tennessee fans expect,” UT head coach Derek Dooley said. “Certainly, at Tennessee, we want to be in the top-25 like a hundred other teams, but you can’t be in it if you don’t keep winning. If you are focused on being in the top-25 and not what you need to do to be in the top-25, then you aren’t going to be in the top-25.”
Florida opened its season with a 27-14 victory against Bowling Green that left many fans still wondering what the Gators were truly capable of in the SEC. But an impressive comeback victory in a hostile environment at Kyle Field, which was playing host to its first-ever SEC game, revealed a new look to the Gators.
While it was just one victory, Muschamp notes, Florida showed the ability to do what it takes to defeat SEC opponents.
“We took the lead with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the offense, with 3:13 to play in the game, was able to kill the clock,” Muschamp said. “That’s something that you’ve got to be able to do in this league to be successful, to win those close games in those situations and to be able to end the game. That’s a credit to our offense. We were very poised and it was a team win, I mean that in all parts as far as offense, defense and special teams.”
Both teams have proven they have the ability to make big plays. Each team has had impact players who have turned question marks into resounding answers following the first two weeks of the season.
A junior college transfer for the Vols, Cordarrelle Patterson has been an unexpected surprise. He is leading his team with 380 all-purpose yards and has provided the “wow factor” in each of his squad’s two games this season. Against NC State in the opener, he scored on a 41-yard reception and a 72-yard run. Last week against Georgia State, he returned a first-quarter kickoff 61 yards, a longer run than any kickoff run in 2011.
For Florida, it has been sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel. With the quarterback situation unknown heading into the season, Driskel has impressed in both the season-opener against Bowling Green and his first career start at Texas A&M. Against the Aggies, he was 13-for-16 for a career-high 162 yards passing, following a 10-for-16, 114-yard performance vs. the Falcons. That opening-week victory included a career-long 50-yard touchdown pass.
What will a win this week mean for each team?
In the big picture, maybe not much.
For Florida, it will mark a 3-0 start heading into a match-up with Kentucky on Sept. 22. More impressively, it would have meant that the Gators would have won back-to-back conference games on the road to start the season. For Tennessee, it would be its first 3-0 start since 2004, the last time that the Vols defeated Florida. It would be the first win over a top-20 team for UT since 2008. Essentially, it would solidify the belief that Tennessee is back among the nation’s elite teams.
Perhaps what’s more important than the outcome of this game is the fact that, on both the national scale and in the SEC, this meeting once again has significant meaning.