This was once a huge rivalry

Considering those 12 glory years from 1990-2001 when it was September’s marquee game because it was the de facto Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Championship Game, it’s almost sinful what has happened to the Florida-Tennessee rivalry game. The air should be filled with excitement and tickets should be scalped for outrageous amounts of money because it’s Florida-Tennessee and a championship is on the line even if it is this early in the season. At least that’s the way it used to be when you could count on both the Gators and Vols coming into this game ranked in the top 10 nationally as they did nine of those 12 seasons during the glory years. Florida comes into Saturday’s game at The Swamp winner of eight straight against the Vols, which partly explains why as of Friday there were plenty of decent tickets to be had for Saturday’s 3:30 kickoff. But, there are more factors than Florida’s winning streak why this game no longer grabs college football by its September lapels.

Instead of electricity in the air Saturday you have a match between 18th-ranked Florida (1-1, 0-0 SEC) with an offense so dysfunctional that the pundits who selected the Gators to win the SEC East are trying to find ways to walk that prediction back and an unranked Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC) team whose defense struggled last week to hold Oregon to 687 yards and 59 points. Somehow that doesn’t sound right. Florida has been defined since 1990 by scorched earth offense that burns a path to the end zone. Well, at least that’s the way it was prior to 2011. Tennessee’s mantra is and always has been defense and a bruising ground game dating back to the single wing days of Bob Neyland when the Vols once shut out 15 consecutive opponents over a two-year (1938-39) span. General Bob is probably rolling over in his grave right now at those 400-plus passing yards that Marcus Mariota rang up against the Vols in the first half last week in Eugene.

So rather than two teams carrying on tradition we have Florida, averaging a scurvy-like 20 points a game that ranks 90th in the NCAA, and Tennessee, giving up 430 yards per game that ranks 98th nationally in total defense. Rather than two highly ranked, powerhouse teams kicking off the SEC portion of their schedules, we have a couple of teams in desperate need of not just a win, but a return to tradition. Florida needs to find its offense. Tennessee needs to find its defense.

But, even if the Gators light a few offensive torches Saturday, it’s the Tennessee defense they are going against. The only reason these guys aren’t ranked lower than 98th in total defense is because they opened their season with Austin Peay, outscored 125-13 in its first three games, and Western Kentucky, which turned the ball over seven times in the first half including five during a six-play span. Those two games gave Vol fans delusions that they might slow down Oregon’s Quack Attack. The only thing that stopped the Ducks from lighting UT up for 900 yards and 80-plus points was a have mercy fourth quarter in which the Ducks did everything but line up backwards on offense to hold down the score.

If Tennessee manages to hold the Gators to fewer than 21 points it is the Florida offense, which apparently needs an antihistamine because there are telltale signs it is allergic to the grass in the end zones, Vol fans will have to remind themselves that it’s only Florida. The Gators lived in the red zone against Miami yet produced more turnovers (5) than touchdowns (2). If the Gators score 21 or fewer points, it will be impossible to tell if it was a brilliant Tennessee effort or just another typical game for the Gators.

So we are faced with the reality that even if the Gators hang six touchdowns on the Vols we still won’t know if it’s because offensive coordinator Brent Pease convinced head coach Will Muschamp to go daredevil and open up the offense or if it was just another day on the farm for the Tennessee defense. And if Florida does a Florida and can’t score touchdowns, Vol fans will be clueless to know if it was Butch Jones suddenly connecting all the dots on the defense or if the simply predictable Gators had another one of those games when the offense was jammed in neutral in the red zone.

Of the two teams, Florida comes into the game more likely to come away with answers. There is no lack of talent on the Florida sideline, just a lack of offensive direction. Everybody knows Jeff Driskel has a strong arm and a terrific set of wheels that can get him deep into a secondary whenever a play breaks down. Those who saw Matt Jones relieving Mike Gillislee last year know what he’s capable of doing when he explodes into a hole and the Miami game gave hope that both Solomon Patton and Quinton Dunbar are SEC-caliber receivers. There is more health on the offensive line than there has been at any time so far this season, so, yes, the Gators do seem to have the most upside in this game.

Plus, the Gators do have a defense, one that’s far better than the one the Vols saw last week in Oregon. If you haven’t seen the Ducks, they actually play defense with their offense. They go up-tempo, score a bunch of points early and take the running game out of the opponent’s equation. Steve Spurrier made a living doing that for 12 years at Florida. Playing defense is a whole lot easier when you make an opponent one-dimensional. Florida’s defense hasn’t had the luxury of playing with a big, early lead, but the Gators are so good defensively that barring the unit suing the offense for non-support nobody is going to light them up.

It is almost predictable that the Gators will play well enough on defense Saturday that given any help by the offense, Florida gets its first SEC win of the season. Even with the Tennessee defense so vulnerable and so porous, Muschamp will go into the game with the same philosophy he’s always had – as long as the defense can hold the other team to one less point than his offense can score, he will be happy. That’s the way defensive-minded coaches think. It’s the way Muschamp is probably always going to think and something Florida fans should get used to. Muschamp is a blue collar coach who believes you win games with airtight defense, a great kicking game and an offense that doesn’t screw things up for everybody else. He proved last year that he could win against an SEC schedule with that philosophy and if he goes 11-1 in the regular season a second straight year, perhaps he will convince some of the Florida faithful who still long for scorched earth that his way is best.

Over on the other sideline, we’re not quite sure what Butch Jones thinks. He is an unknown quantity given the talent level from top to bottom of his roster. Yes, he won at Central Michigan and also at Cincinnati, but that’s a far cry from winning at Tennessee. He may prove to be a genius and everything that’s needed at Tennessee to restore the winning tradition but it won’t be this year, not with that roster.

So don’t expect electricity in the air Saturday and even if the Gators win big, don’t expect a lot of answers about the offense just as Vol fans shouldn’t expect many answers if the Florida offense makes their defense look more capable than it is.  Someone will win; someone will lose. That’s all.

That is a rather startling statement about how this once spectacular rivalry has lost its luster. Perhaps it will become a huge rivalry game once again. Just not this year.

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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.