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.
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.
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.