Published September 16, 2011 - 4:18pm
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This Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers (2-0, 0-0 SEC) kick off their SEC schedule when they travel to Gainesville to take on Will Muschamp’s Florida Gators (2-0, 0-0 SEC). The past two decades have not been kind to Tennessee in this heated rivalry, but the Vols are heading into The Swamp in an attempt to change the course of history.
Earlier this week, Tennessee Head Coach Derek Dooley said, “It is only relevant if the team makes it relevant. I’ve said it all along, you can’t be held hostage to the past. We played last year and had a good game going , and they whipped us in the fourth quarter. We had a couple of turnovers at bad times.”
Dooley further added about last year’s game, “We got a bunch of different guys who didn’t play in the game playing now. So for the bulk of our team, this is the first time they are playing against Florida, and guess what, they have a lot of new guys too. That stuff doesn’t matter unless you make it matter. If you make it matter, it matters.”
Dooley’s remarks were in reference to the Florida Gators recent dominance of the SEC East rivalry that was once one of the top grudge matches in college football. The Vols, who have not beaten the Gators since 2004, are the SEC’s youngest team with 73 percent of the roster comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
Though the youthful Vols are nearly a double digit underdog according to the odds-makers, many believe that this Saturday’s contest in The Swamp may be Tennessee’s best chance at knocking off the Gators in quite some time.
The Gators certainly have history on their side in recent years, winning 15 of the last 20 contests, or 75 percent, and last lost to the Vols at home in 2003. Florida also holds a slight edge in the all-time series, winning 21 and dropping 19.
So with history and Vegas favoring the Gators, why are Tennessee fans so optimistic about ending a six-game skid against their arch-enemy of the SEC East? It all begins with a renewed faith in leadership and an explosive young offense lead by sophomore’s Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, as well as a good bit of uncertainty concerning the Gator’s offense.
Though he’s already been through some tough times on Rocky Top, Derek Dooley appears to have the Big Orange headed in the right direction. Thrown into the middle of a firestorm when he arrived in January 2010, Dooley has masterfully waded through the debris left behind by Lane Kiffin & Co. and still managed to put together two outstanding recruiting classes. Dooley’s willingness to play young players is already beginning to pay dividends as the Vols are off to their first 2-0 start since 2006 and are winners of six of their last seven games.
Among the stars of Dooley’s early recruits, none have shined brighter than quarterback Tyler Bray and his dynamic receiving duo of Hunter and Rogers.
Since taking over at quarterback last season at Memphis, Bray has been nothing short of phenomenal. To go along with a 6-1 record, the Vol’s signal-caller has thrown for 2248 yards and 23 touchdowns in only 7 career starts. Bray has already broken numerous Tennessee passing records and most recently surpassed Peyton Manning’s mark of seven consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes.
Bray’s sophomore receiving duo of Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers both saw plenty of action as freshmen but are now becoming full-fledged SEC stars in the early going of the 2011 season. Each has gone over the 100-yard mark in receiving yards in each of the first two games and last week against Cincinnati, both had 10 catches to set new standards in the UT record books.
Many are still somewhat skeptical of the Vols, claiming the lack of quality opponents during Bray’s impressive run. That, at the very least, should all change after Saturday. The Gators come in with a number 16 national ranking and are also looking for improvement after a a lackluster 2010 campaign. John Brantley is still trying to live up to his much-raved about potential and coaching changes have shown a tiny crack in the stability of the Florida program. The truth is, both programs are still somewhat of a mystery to many observers.
One thing that is not a mystery to either of these two programs is the historical importance of the game now known as, “The Third Saturday in September.”
For the first 10 years of divisional play, beginning in 1992, the Eastern Division was represented in the SEC Championship Game by either the Gators or the Vols. In the 19-year history of the SEC Championship Game, the winner of the Tennessee / Florida game has gone on to capture the conference title 9 times. Neither team, with the exception of the 1997 Vols lead by Peyton Manning, has ever lost this game and gone on to win the SEC Championship. So history has shown the stakes are quite high when the Vols and Gators take to the gridiron.
Tomorrow in Gainesville, another chapter will be added to this historic rivalry.