Yes, this is not the first big game of Butch Jones’ coaching career at Tennessee.
And yes, there are other matchups this season that may prove to be bigger for Jones and the Volunteers.
But for this moment, for what it could mean for Tennessee’s chances at winning the SEC East, Saturday’s game at No. 24 Florida is the biggest.
Here are five reasons why a win would be huge for the Vols:
5) Chance to begin the end of Florida’s SEC East run
The Gators were viewed by many this summer as either the first or second choice to capture the East this season. Florida is trying to reach a third straight SEC Championship Game, something that hasn’t happened for the Gators since playing in the first five conference title games from 1992-96.
However, Florida opened its season with a loss to Michigan, and a win by Tennessee would put the Gators in an 0-2 hole overall. Obviously, 0-1 in SEC play hardly means you’re eliminated from the division race.
But with questions already being raised in Gainesville about the Gators’ quarterback situation, a loss to Tennessee would shift any “pressure” from the media from Jones to third-year Florida coach Jim McElwain.
4) Puts Tennessee in position to reach 10 wins
Jones has led the Volunteers to back-to-back 9-win seasons. But a 10-win season has eluded him during his four seasons at Tennessee. In fact, the last time Tennessee won 10 or more games was 2007.
The ESPN Football Power Index only projects Tennessee as a favorite in six more games, and not on Saturday (Gators are a 62 percent favorite). A win over Florida would change a lot of the FPI numbers for Tennessee.
3) Gives rivalry, and UT’s confidence, a needed boost
Last season, Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak to Florida with a 38-28 victory. But to regain credibility in the rivalry, the Volunteers need to start building a winning streak against the Gators. Since the teams became division foes in 1992, Florida has won 19 of 25 meetings.
The last time Tennessee won back-to-back games over Florida was 2003-04. The Volunteers are also looking to win in Gainesville for the first time since 2003.
2) Halts Tennessee’s struggles against ranked opponents
Under Jones, Tennessee is 6-15 against AP-ranked opponents, a record that is somewhat misleading when you consider that 5 of the 6 wins have come over the past two seasons.
But this stat is not misleading: The Volunteers are 1-9 on the road against ranked opponents under Jones. And that one win came last year in Athens on a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play.
A road win would not only put Tennessee in excellent position to compete for the East title, it would help to erase the stigma attached to Jones that he can’t beat the best.
1) Sets up Tennessee for legitimate run at East title
Tennessee hasn’t played in the SEC Championship Game in 10 years. But a look at the schedule shows why this is such a huge game for the Volunteers.
Two weeks after the Florida game, Tennessee takes on No. 13 Georgia. Two weeks after that, the Volunteers play South Carolina. In mid-November, Tennessee takes on No. 12 LSU.
What do all three opponents have in common? They all must travel to Knoxville.
True, Tennessee does travel to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama in late October. Each of these future opponents could turn out to be bigger games than Saturday’s matchup with Florida — but only if Vols win in Gainesville.