What’s up with the Gators?

It’s that time again.

Two years ago, Tennessee hosted Florida (as well as ESPN’s coveted GameDay set) in the most anticipated football game of the Derek Dooley era. Not only were the Vols ranked in the national polls for the first time in years, but the halftime ceremonies featured the most revered native son, former All-America player and head coach Johnny Majors, getting his number retired in a house that doesn’t host as many retired digits as it could.

The result was the beginning of the end of the Dooley era as the Vols melted under the stress of another second half filled with adversity, which perhaps is what many will remember about Dooley’s Vols.

And the national ranking went away as quickly as Dooley slammed the ball to the ground in disgust after catching a Tyler Bray throwaway in the second half.

At that time, the Vols had become famous for good first halves and lousy second ones. Simply put, those Tennessee teams were losers who easily unraveled at the slightest sign of a real fight.

But now, things look completely different (as long as Justin Worley is in the game that is).

This time, it is Florida that has that losing look all over the face of their once mighty football program.

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Yes, the Florida Gator football program is reeling. They have won only two of their past 10 games dating to last season, a fact that is nearly unthinkable.

It all started a couple of years ago…

The Gators defeated its massive instate rival Florida State in convincing fashion to cap the 2012 regular season. Second-year head coach Will Muschamp was the toast of Gainesville with that 11-win season, being named SEC Coach of the Year. But then the Gators, ranked #4 in the polls, got hammered in the Superdome by Louisville.

And while Florida State has won 19 straight games since that 2012 season finale, Florida has lost 10 of 16. Yes, injuries have been a big part of the downward Gator spiral, but the Florida program has prided itself on its depth over the years, so the faithful in the sunshine state aren’t satisfied with the training room excuse. They are as negative as I can remember them.

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To say that Saturday’s game is a big one in the growth of Butch’s Team #118 is perhaps an understatement compared to how big this one is for Muschamp and his swampers. The SEC East is practically there for the taking as it is the conference’s western half that holds the real powerhouses. And Florida doesn’t resemble a team ready to take it. Quarterback Jeff Driskel’s play has many calling for his benching. The defensive secondary is particularly awful. Three weeks ago, it took the Gators three overtimes to defeat Kentucky. At home. And Florida’s 42-21 defeat to Alabama two weeks ago featured the Gator defense giving up the most yards in school history (645).

The offense is getting worse every week. The defense is young and the paint hasn’t been applied to the canvas. And Muschamp’s seat has gotten hotter than a blistering Florida summer afternoon.

It seems that the only thing Florida has going for it come Saturday is history. The Gators have won nine straight against Tennessee, and the last seven of those wins have been by double-digit margins.

But the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers has the look of a team that is paying more attention to General Neyland’s Seven Game Maxims than any team in orange over the last decade. It seems as if Tennessee has their boot on the back of the Gator’s neck, ready to crush the very life out of Florida football, and kickoff is many hours away.

On Saturday, we’ll learn a whole lot about how far Butch Jones has actually turned around the Good Ship Rocky Top. The Vol fan base is on starvation watch and needs a victory over Florida right now. As for Florida, nobody has a clue whether or not they will have the same head coach come December.

A Gator win over the Vols just might save Muschamp’s job and simultaneously would cause many a hungry Vol fan to suspend critical judgment on Jones.

But a Tennessee victory would truly clear the air and establish the true vector direction of both programs.

Which way will it go? I’m waiting a couple more days before I decide. But I’m definitely leaning in a certain direction.

 

Can you tell it’s Florida week?

It’s that time of year when the blood begins to boil and the players begin to eat gator meat as part of ritual.

This year’s rivalry game may just feature some organized sartorial splendor. And there is even a website devoted to its organization.

Checkerboard Neyland

So, what color will you be wearing? You can find out at the website. Or, bring two shirts – one orange, one white – and be ready for anything… or help out a bluehair that doesn’t have internet access, or a computer for that matter.

What was the difference between a Vols win and today’s loss?

Georgia 35  Tennessee 32

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After a highly entertaining first half, the game went curiously dead in the third quarter with both teams failing to take advantage of the other’s misfortunes: Georgia (as predicted) got pass happy (to its demise), and Tennessee seemingly ran out of ideas as well as a quarterback (more about that later). But in the end, the difference was a trifecta…

Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley tries to elude the tackle of Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin during the second quarter at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley tries to elude the tackle of Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin during the second quarter at Sanford Stadium Saturday September 27, 2014. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

A Heisman Trophy candidate. Todd Gurley ran for a career-high 208 yards and scored two touchdowns. His 51-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter put his team up by 11 with 9:30 left in the game. It was a back breaker to a Vols defense that (again) performed valiantly on the road in a hostile setting.

A punt and fumble. Vol freshman running back Jalen Hurd burned the biscuits by dropping a handoff from QB Justin Worley with only 4:21 left in the contest. The worst part was it happened in the end zone (the Vols were at their one yard line), and Josh Dawson, who recovered it, was wearing a red jersey. It put the Dawgs ahead by ten, 35-25. Worley followed by marching the Vols quickly down the field for a TD to cut the margin by 3 with only a bit more than two minutes left. What could have been… yes. But it all started with a 50-yard Collin Barber punt that was downed by Georgia at the Volunteer one yard line. One big play was followed by another big play by the Bulldogs.

An elbow. Tennessee senior QB Justin Worley threw for 264 yards and three TDs. But in the middle of it all, he missed much of a disastrous third quarter after being hit on his throwing elbow during a pass rush. Enter reserve QB Nathan Peterman. Remember last year’s debacle in Gainesville? It all looked so familiar this time again. Except that it started out looking promising. On the first drive after Worley’s elbow was knocked numb, Tennessee unveiled a reverse and then a double-reverse to help Peterman march the Vols deep into Bulldog territory. But then misfortune came a-knocking as Peterman and Marlin Lane for an instant pretended to not know each other on a handoff that resulted in a drive-killing fumble. It was recovered by Josh Dawson. Yes, that Josh Dawson wearing a red jersey.

Can the Bulldogs implode?

TENNESSEE AT GEORGIA

Sanford Stadium | Athens | Saturday 27 September 2014 | 12:00pm EDT

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It’s a fair question because I see it as the only way the Vols come out of Athens on Saturday with a win.

sad-face-bulldogIf Georgia gets pass happy, then that is what I would dump in the category of implosion. The Dawgs best strategy would be to run and run and keep on running (regardless of early game results) in order to eventually wear down a Tennessee defense that will fight to the very death as they showed in Norman two weeks ago. That’s what Georgia does best. Anything else would be foolish.

But we’ve seen the Bulldogs do foolish things in the past in this rivalry that has had an unpredictable nature to it. We’ve seen some pretty sad puppy faces as a result. I don’t see it this year.

Georgia 34  Tennessee 21

How do you see Saturday’s contest?

Is Georgia on your mind?

Tennessee’s next foe disappointed in their first conference game but followed with a thrashing of Troy that had the scribes leafing through the record books. Georgia’s 66-0 win on Saturday was their most points scored in 20 years and their largest winning margin since 1958.

But perhaps most notable to Vols fans who have been watching all the new faces in orange was that Georgia road the backs of two freshmen of their own — both who just a year ago were playing on the same high school team down in Plantation, Florida. Meet Sony Michael and Isaiah McKenzie: the former rushed for 155 yards and 3 TDs, and the latter ran a punt back 52 yards into the Troy end zone.

Yes, Troy is a pretty bad football team (their record stands at 0-4 with other losses to UAB, Duke, and Abaliene Christian). But seeing Georgia with freshman stars in addition to their upperclassmen talent should put Georgia squarely on the mind of all Tennessee fans.

How about you?

Should Tennessee be playing Appalachian State?

It was reported today that Appalachian State will be coming to Knoxville to play the Vols on September 3, 2016.

This is a topic that we here at VITF have discussed before multiple times: Tennessee’s non-conference foes. I have always been against Div I schools playing lower division opponents (OK, we’re now talking FBS and FCS). And I’m sure most Michigan fans would agree with me.

So, normally, I would not be happy with this recently announced schedule addition.

But now it’s OK with me, because in 2013, the football Mountaineers began a 2-year transition to the FBS, with FBS bowl eligibility beginning in 2015. What a way for Appalachian State to begin the second season of their new status as a member of the top echelon — with a trip to Knoxville and a big huge pile of cash as a reward.

And, being a former ASU student myself (just a year before moving up to the big time), I’m thrilled that the folks in Boone will be making the trip over the Smokies.

Maybe the UTAD should legalize pot for the away section on that game day just to make the Appy crazies feel at home!

But I digress… What do you think?

What did we learn from Saturday night in Norman?

Oklahoma 34 Tennessee 10

Saturday September 13, 2014 / Memorial Stadium (Norman) /  85,622

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UT vs OUSpeed kills. This used to be an SEC mantra because the conference OWNED this aspect of football. But it’s everywhere, on both sides of the ball. “They can’t match our speed” is a long forgotten boast of the South.

Continuous defensive pressure wins games. The Sooners’ defensive front seven completely suffocated Tennessee’s hopes of doing practically anything with the ball. Combine that with size and deceptive looks and you have a recipe of how to get to the post-season playoff.

You don’t need piped in music to make a great college football atmosphere. I’ve been to many games in Norman. It’s not as loud as Neyland on its best day, but it always was an exciting venue. The OU band plays nice little hooks that are fast-paced snippets of energy. Tennessee is going in the wrong direction on this issue. The Pride of the Southland enabled this turn of direction because of their slow-paced, boring choices of sound.

Tennessee finally has a bona fide leader in Justin Worley. The guy was pressured all night long and took an amazing amount of physical punishment. But he blamed no one and kept on believing that his teammates could win. Seemingly out of it with 11:20 left in the game, Worley and his Vols were a tipped pass away from making it really interesting.

Cam Sutton is your next Volunteer on an All-American team. His Twitter handle is “Orange Swarm.” For good reason.

These are not your Dooley’s Vols. This group of players and their coaches are too legit to quit. No slumped shoulders. No sitting off by yourself (e.g., Tyler Bray). A lot of effort, everywhere all the time. Fight Vols fight with all your might / For the Orange and White / Never falter, never yield / …

The future is bright, but… Tennessee gained a lot of respect with their effort in the nighttime den of perhaps one of the best three or four teams in the land. But it’s still about baby steps. We are four wins away from a bowl game. The question is where they will and can come from. Vanderbilt and Chattanooga are a given. That leaves two to go. Notice I didn’t include Kentucky (see Saturday night in Florida). The season hinges on two home games: Florida and Missouri. Barring key injuries, it’s better than 50-50 that we are playing post-season football.

Give me your thoughts.

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