After his news conference in Knoxville this week, a perturbed Butch Jones confronted a reporter in the room. The Tennessee coach’s issue? The reporter had worn a blue shirt that day.
Blue is one of the school colors for the University of Florida. How dare he?
It has been that kind of week up on Rocky Top. To say the Vols are on edge would be an understatement. There is a two-ton Gator on Tennessee’s back and the Vols aim to get him off this week.
As hard as it is to fathom, the Vols have lost to Florida 11 times in a row coming into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game. That’s right, ELEVEN.
That might be understandable if these were still the Gators of Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer, but they’re not. The reality is, there has been four Florida teams that lost five or more games during that stretch, including one 4-8 squad.
Many times during the current streak the Vols were thought to have the better team. It could be argued that was the case last year in Gainesville. But the Gators scored a touchdown on fourth-and-14 with 1:26 remaining and Tennessee missed a field goal in the closing seconds to lose 28-27. The Vols were devastated.
A lot of folks think the Vols were still concussed the next week when they lost at home to Arkansas. So it was Florida, and not Tennessee, that represented the East in the SEC championship.
If you’re thinking that the Vols might have a complex when it comes to Florida, you’d probably be right. And it goes beyond this current losing streak.
Ask Peyton Manning about it. Arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation, Manning was 0-3 against the Gators. Florida is why he never won a Heisman Trophy and why Tennessee never won a national championship with Manning under center.
Some folks in Knoxville credit Florida for Tennessee’s “slow” start this season. Yes, the 14th-ranked Volunteers (3-0) remain undefeated. But they infamously struggled against Appalachian State in the opener, finally winning 20-13 in overtime, and toiled even with the Ohio Bobcats last week before prevailing 28-19. Even the relatively impressive 45-24 win over Virginia Tech in the Battle of Bristol came only after the Hokies gifted them with five fumbles.
“They’ve been looking ahead to Week 4,” Tennessee insiders theorized.
Everybody believes this is the year the streak ends. Las Vegas does. The Vols opened as 10-point favorites. That has dwindled down to the 6.5 as the week has gone by.
But, as history tells us, nothing is a given. And Tennessee has encountered some issues. First and foremost, it lost All-SEC cornerback and kick returner Cam Sutton to a fractured ankle. It is also expected to be without starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland to a high-ankle sprain. Meanwhile, fellow inside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Mabin is supposed to play but has been dogged all season with shoulder issues.
Florida has some obstacles of its own. The 23rd-ranked Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) lost starting quarterback Luke Del Rio to a knee injury during last Saturday’s 32-0 win over North Texas. Del Rio is expected to be replaced by Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue who has played in some big games in his career. Two true freshmen await otherwise.
And it’s not like the Gators have been world-beaters. Their worksheet to date includes wins over North Texas, UMass and Kentucky. Sagarin rates Florida’s strength of schedule at 157th, which is really saying something when you consider there are only 127 FBS teams.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is pulling out all the stops. They’re handing out orange and white t-shirts so they can “checkerboard” the grandstands in Neyland Stadium. They’re whipping out the Smokey Grey uniforms. Those are the ones they were wearing when they got that Bulldog off their back last year against Georgia.
If ever there was an absolute must-win game for the Tennessee Vols, this is it. Don’t buy all that stuff about being “just another game” and big only because “it’s the next game.”
For Tennessee and Jones, this is THE game. Dress accordingly.