FEARLESS FORECAST: And the winner is … ?

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — The preseason schedule ended nicely for the Florida Gators last week when they dismantled their country cousins from Orlando at The Swamp, a nice preliminary to Saturday night’s game in Neyland Stadium. Last week was a tune-up. This week the schedule begins in earnest Make no mistake about it, tonight’s Florida-Tennessee match-up is the real deal.

Florida and Tennessee are both ranked and both 2-0, which is usually the case when they square off. And, as in most of the last 14 years, it’s the third game of the season for both teams and the shotgun start to the Southeastern Conference schedule. Florida is ranked sixth in one poll, seventh in the other, while the Vols are ranked number 13 in one poll and 17 in the other so plenty is on the line even though the SEC schedule is just starting.

A Florida win and the Gators remain among those top teams that have a legitimate shot at a BCS Bowl. A loss and the Gators slide back in the pack with very little wiggle room left on a schedule that can casually be described as brutal. For Tennessee, a win and it’s further evidence that last season’s bowl-less 5-6 record was one of those Haley’s Comet events that happen every now and then. A Tennessee win would also vault the Vols into the top 10 and considering their schedule is quite a bit easier the rest of the way than the one faced by the Gators, it could put them right where they want to be in terms of the BCS standings.

So it is a benchmark game for both teams, an early season barometer for how far they’ve come and how well they’re prepared for the rest of the season. Just because it is an important game for both teams, there is no doubt that the game has much more importance for the Gators.

There is a whole lot less pressure on the Vols tonight. After going 5-6, the expectation bar is not quite as high as it used to be. Everybody up here wants to believe in the Vols and they’ve got all fingers crossed hoping that this 2-0 start is a signal that they are for real, but still, last year left an indelible impression on the minds of Tennessee fans far and wide. If the Vols lose, the faithful will lament another loss to the Gators but they’ll have the built-in excuse “well, we’re rebuilding after a bad year so you can’t expect us to win them all.”

For the Gators, the 2-0 start is where everybody expects them to be. That’s a given. The expectation in Gainesville is that the Gators are always 2-0 when they face Tennessee in the third game of the season. Last year, the Vols came in highly ranked and expected to win a hard fought game with the Gators in The Swamp. Florida won, part of a 6-0 take back The Swamp run by the Gators in Urban Meyer’s first year.

Florida’s problems weren’t in The Swamp last year just as they haven’t been in games one and two. Florida’s problems were on the road, which brings us to the reason why this is a far more important game for the Gators to win than it is for Tennessee.

Florida was 3-3 away from The Swamp last year — 2-0 in the state of Florida but 1-3 in SEC roadies with the only win at Kentucky. Let’s face it. Kentucky being Kentucky, about the only time the Gators should lose to Kentucky in Lexington — or anywhere else for all that matters — is when there are confirmed sightings of donkeys flying. The Gators lost to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, LSU in Baton Rouge and South Carolina in Columbia pretty much by the same formula. Florida fell behind early and never caught up.

Still, the Gators went 9-3 with a first year coach, a rather nice accomplishment considering Meyer was implementing a brand new system with a complement of players that didn’t exactly fit in well. Some players are gone and the players that remain are obviously far more comfy in the system here in year two and that gives the Gators a realistic chance to win every game they play. The only problem is the schedule is not conducive to winning them all. After this encounter in Knoxville tonight, the Gators get their annual mulligan with Kentucky before a brutal stretch that has Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. Alabama and LSU are at home so you have to like Florida’s chances in those two games and Georgia is in Jacksonville where the Gators have owned them (14-2) since 1990.

The problem game is Auburn at Auburn. The Tigers are really, really good and for Florida to have a realistic chance to pull off a win in that hostile environment, the Gators better come into the game with a significant road win under their belts. There will be plenty enough pressure on Florida going into Auburn no matter what the record, but without a significant win in a roadie, it will be like playing with the proverbial 800-pound gorilla on the backs of the Gators.

So that’s why it is far more important for the Gators to win this game Saturday night. It’s reasonable to expect the team that represents the East in the SEC Championship Game can have two conference losses. It happened last year, it probably happens again this year. If Florida gets a win here Saturday night, the Gators go into that four-game stretch with a lot of confidence and they don’t have to go into Auburn looking for their first big road win. A loss and the Gators go into that Auburn game knowing they can’t lose. Nobody wants to face Auburn at Auburn with that kind of pressure.

So how do the Gators get off to a good SEC start and win in the biggest arena in the SEC (107,000 seats at Neyland and all will be filled)?

There are three keys for Florida. First, the Gators have to establish the run. Second, they have to find a way to get into Erik Ainge’s head early, and third, Florida cannot turn the ball over.

In past years, establishing the running game was more of a concern than this year even with DeShawn Wynn running at less than 100 percent, teaming with the sometimes tentative Kestahn Moore at tailback. This year the Gators have found ways to get production out of the running game without huge input from the tailbacks and all that has done is open things up for the tailbacks to have some nice gains.

The key for the Gators to run against Tennessee is to get Percy Harvin, Bubba Caldwell and Jarred Fayson involved in the running game early on. Even with the amount of speed the Vols have, they can’t simulate in practice what those three can do when they get the ball wide and a chance to create space by beating one man. If Florida can keep the Vols defense spread wide in an effort to keep the three Florida speedsters in check, then there will be room for Wynn and Moore to run the ball between the tackles. Throw in the injury to Justin Harrell and this multiplies Florida’s chances for success. If the wide game works, then DeShawn Wynn could have a career day.

Tennessee has been avoiding sacks and building Ainge’s confidence by letting him throw off three-step drops. That means short passes to his big, strong wide receivers, all of whom have the ability to break tackles and turn short gainers into big plays. To combat this, the Gators will need to get a good push up the middle from the tackle threesome of Marcus Thomas, Steven Harris and Joe Cohen. Florida’s defensive ends will need to bring it on one play, drop into the passing lanes on the next and keep Ainge confused. Any kind of early in your face contact with Ainge will help, too.

Judging by what Ainge did last year, he’s not really good about handling adversity. That’s why offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has tried to create such a stress-free environment for Ainge this year. Florida has to make things stressful. If it’s the old Erik Ainge, he will fall apart if the Gators can do that.

Third, the Gators can’t turn the ball over, particularly early in the game. The Gators ran into serious troubles on the road last year by turning the ball over and giving up quick touchdowns early in the first quarter. The Gators can’t afford to give Tennessee any confidence whatsoever. One of the best ways to keep the Vols feeling like the ship is sinking is to avoid turnovers.

FEARLESS FORECAST: The Gators protect the football and force Tennessee to defend the entire field which opens the running game early on. The Gators will establish the run and win the field position battle, forcing Tennessee away from the 60-40 run-pass mix the Vols are running when they’re successful. Look for Wynn to have a big day running and for Dallas Baker to be totally uncoverable, especially when the Vols have to commit their safeties to help the front seven with the running game. Expect Have Mercy Percy to break at least one big one. Florida wins 24-10 but it isn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.