GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jalen “Teez” Tabor didn’t get to play the last time his Florida Gators took on SEC East rival Tennessee.
He didn’t get to stand on the sideline as The Swamp roared last September when Antonio Callaway caught a fourth-and-14 pass from Will Grier, planted and turned up field for a 63-yard go-ahead touchdown with 1:26 remaining.
The star cornerback, suspended that game for a violation of university policy, didn’t get to join the defense as it came back on the field to protect that 28-27 lead, which ultimately stood as the Vols barely missed a final 55-yard field goal.
So, yes, this game Saturday as No. 19 Florida goes on the road to take on No. 14 Tennessee has been circled on his calendar, as he put it.
“It means a lot. I really didn’t get to show Tennessee what I could do last year, but I think I showed them freshman year,” Tabor said. “But still, I just want to get out there and really play. Everybody’s been waiting for this week. I’m just ready to play.”
While Tabor has been waiting for this week, the Florida media and Gators fans have been waiting to hear from him.
Tabor, who was brought out for a post-game interview Saturday night after Florida’s 32-0 win over North Texas, had not been made available to reporters since before his altercation with Gators tight end C’yontai Lewis back in mid-August.
Both players were suspended for the season opener as a result.
In his return Week 2 against Kentucky, Tabor made his presence felt with one of the best interceptions of his collegiate career, breaking on a screen pass at the precise split-second needed to dart between two Wildcats and snag the pick.
“It felt like a monkey got off my back. You know, I just, I like to be in the locker room and not being able to be in the locker room, not being able to communicate with my guys on the field, I feel like that’s what I do and when that was taken away from me that was just hard,” Tabor said. “But I got back and I felt like we played pretty good these last two weeks.”
The Gators held Kentucky to 55 passing yards (with three interceptions), 149 total yards of offense and only a late touchdown against Florida’s backups near the end of the fourth quarter.
The defense than shutout North Texas last Saturday night, allowing a total of 53 yards — a school record.
“With or without me, it’s the best defense in the country,” Tabor said.
True, Florida was pretty stifling in the season opener against Massachusetts too, allowing the Minutemen all of 187 yards and seven points.
But with all of its pieces — including its most high-profile — working together, there is legitimate reason to think this Florida defense could be better than the 2015 version.
Which circles back to the main topic — the pivotal SEC East clash in Knoxville, Tenn., this week, the first true test for Florida and the game Tabor in particular has been waiting for since, well, who knows how long it’s been on his mind.
“I’ve been waiting for every game really, just to get out there and show what I can do, but I mean, this is one you circle on your calendars, don’t get me wrong. It’s Tennessee-Florida, the SEC East,” he said.
“… It means a lot to this team, to where we want to go. I mean, they’re the next opponent, they’re a tough opponent, but at the end of the day, I mean, when you get the schedule you circle a couple of games.”
Tabor got his first taste of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium as a freshman in 2014 and seemed to feed off the atmosphere.
“Oh, it was so loud. It was crazy loud,” he recalled.
It was his first career start and he would finish with five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and recovery and a pass break-up. The sack came late in the third quarter, causing the fumble and his own recovery at the Tennessee 30-yard line. Florida scored its first touchdown on the ensuing drive and would go on to win 10-9.
As fans on both sides of the rivalry well know, the Gators have now won 11-straight games in the series with the Vols.
Tennessee was the popular preseason pick in the SEC East this year, but the Vols have looked shaky outside of a 45-24 win over Virginia Tech. They needed overtime to squeak by Appalachian State and then settled for a lackluster 28-19 win over Mid-American Conference foe Ohio last weekend.
Tabor expects Tennessee’s very best Saturday afternoon, though.
“They’ve got some pretty good players. I feel like they haven’t really played anybody of our caliber yet so they’ve probably just been kind of slacking around most likely,” he said. “But they’ve got some pretty good players that can turn it up at any time. …
“I feel like (we’re) going to get everybody’s best game. They’re going to go harder this week in practice. It’s Tennessee-Florida for the SEC East. Like, you win this game, like you basically, I’m not saying you win the SEC East, but you get ahead. The team that loses needs the team that wins to lose two more games in conference. Even if they lose one, you still break the tiebreaker.”
The Vols are better known for their ground attack with mobile quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd leading the way, but Tabor is still hoping he gets tested in the passing game.
“I want them to. My mom always told me, you play with fire you get burnt,” he said.
One way or another, he expects Florida’s defense to make a pronounced impact yet again.
The stakes are greater this week, but the Gators are the Gators, he said.
“We’re confident going into every game. Tonight, last week, the week before that. I mean, defensively, it don’t matter who we play — we’re confident,” he said. “It’s a standard. We really don’t see the opponent. We’re trying to hold them to zero yards.”
Another dominant showing for the top-ranked defense in the country would no doubt make a statement.
After sitting out the Tennessee game last year, Tabor would like nothing more than to play a starring role in making that happen.
But then again, he’s going to feel the same way a week later when the Gators head to Vanderbilt. And the week after that and so on.
“Yeah, I always got a chip on my shoulder, that’s just the way I am,” Tabor said. “I come from the inner city so just what I do every day is a blessing. It really is. A lot of my friends, a lot of people I (grew) up with they don’t get to see this type of life. Every day I wake up I just feel like I’m so blessed. I got out of a situation, came out here and every day I feel like I have something to prove. I just feel like I have something to prove every time I step on the field. Every time I walk out (of) my house I want people to know who I am, what I’m about.”