Here it is, a Florida-Tennessee game that actually means something.
Saturday evening’s tussle in Knoxville — like it or not — is a must-win for the Vols if Rocky Top wants to keep its program in the national spotlight. A victory gives the Volunteers a leg up in the East and more importantly, cools the hot seat — at least temporarily — that’s roasting Derek Dooley.
Dooley replaced Lane Kiffin in 2010 to rebuild a unit that suffered serious decline in Phillip Fulmer’s final season. Instead, Tennessee has sputtered to consecutive losing seasons, dismissed a number of key players and hasn’t been competitive against ranked teams. Since 2010, Tennessee is 0-10 against ranked teams with the average margin of defeat at 22.1 points per game — unacceptable by Rocky Top standards.
Tradition-rich Tennessee’s game against the Gators will determine whether or not this team is “back” and if the Vols are a serious contender in the East. A nationally-televised contest at Neyland Stadium and Gameday in Knoxville only ups the ante for Dooley whose future rides on a successful finish in Year 3. Remember when it used to be difficult to win at Tennessee, a site with checkerboard end zones and 100,000-plus rabid fans?
The Vols need to get back to that and it starts with all-conference hopeful Tyler Bray.
Tennessee’s offense, when Bray is healthy, is tough to contain. Had he not been injured early on last season, the Vols would’ve won more than five games. He’s calm in the pocket, has an NFL arm and seems to have complete control of Jim Chaney’s offense. Have we mentioned how well Bray has played this season? In two games, he’s completed almost 75 percent of his passes, hasn’t thrown a pick and has six touchdowns. The 6-foot-6 junior has put the ball in the hands of multiple playmakers including Justin Hunter. Hunter has made up for Da’Rick Rogers dismissal with 17 catches for 219 yards and three scores. JUCO transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is the hidden gem who made a splash in Tennessee’s emphatic opener in Atlanta against N.C. State.
Moreover, it’s an important game for Bray who is still trying to put his name in the elite realm of college football’s top quarterbacks. A stellar outing against one of the SEC’s best secondaries would certainly strengthen his argument and make him an early front-runner for the league’s offensive player of the year award.
As the saying goes, there’s two sides to every story and Florida views Saturday’s game just as vital to its championship expectations.
What will the Gators have to say about Tennessee’s most important game of the Dooley era? Florida will try and handle it as business as usual. Florida has dominated the rivalry, winning 15 of the last 20 games including seven straight. Despite a weak history on offense under Will Muschamp, the Gators opened a few eyes last week with a road win over Texas A&M, a gutsy 20-17 decision. Quarterback Jeff Driskel made enough plays to win away from home in the SEC, something you can’t teach a young quarterback. The Gators come in with confidence and a quiet swagger since most view them as the underdog.
We’ll see what Tennessee is made of Saturday night in Knoxville and for Dooley’s sake, determine how many feelers he should send to other schools in the offseason — perhaps none if his team handles the pressure and captures a win.
How do you think Dooley and the Vols will fare in their biggest game in three seasons Saturday?