For Tennessee football, Akron means nothing. Florida means everything | Adams
Akron meant nothing more than a sure win for Tennessee. But next Saturday’s Florida game could mean everything.
That’s hardly breaking news.
Long before the Vols and Zips kicked off Saturday at Neyland Stadium, you knew whom would get kicked, and who would do the kicking. A seven-touchdown spread doesn’t do much to generate suspense.
Suspense was long gone by the end of the first half. The No. 16 Vols scored the first 35 points and were on their way to a 63-6 victory against an opponent that looked more helpless than its MAC brother, Ball State, whom Tennessee knocked around to the tune of 59-10 in its season opener.
Since this matchup was no more taxing than a pregame stretch for Tennessee, let’s move on to the Gators.
My opinion on them hasn’t changed much from preseason through three games. Never mind that they drew national attention by edging No. 7 Utah in the season opener in Billy Napier’s debut as Florida’s coach. The outcome said more about the overrated Utes, who weren’t up to the preseason hype or an SEC challenge on the road.
Florida’s follow-up was a better indicator of its talent. The Gators faded in the second half, and heralded quarterback Anthony Richardson often looked lost in a 26-16 loss to Kentucky.
Of course, Florida has beaten Tennessee with far worse quarterbacks than Richardson while winning 16 of the past 17 games in the series.
Their recent run of dominance began way back in 2005 when coach Urban Meyer laid the foundation for a championship program. However, lesser Florida teams also have had their way with the Vols.
For example, take the Will Muschamp era. He couldn’t win enough games to keep his job but didn’t lose in four tries against Tennessee. His success against UT also said something about his coaching competition. He won twice each against UT coaches Derek Dooley and Butch Jones.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel is an obvious upgrade, especially on offense. But he has more than the right offense to bring down the Gators. He has the right personality.
The Florida series has a long history of bringing out the worst in Tennessee coaches, including Phillip Fulmer, who led the Vols to a national championship in 1998. He frequently didn't look comfortable coaching against the Gators, particularly when matched against Steve Spurrier. Not surprisingly, Fulmer’s teams frequently looked uncomfortable, too.
The stakes were higher – and so was the pressure - in the 1990s when Tennessee and Florida dominated the SEC East. A loss in that crucial September matchup always left the loser playing catchup in the division..
There also will be a pressurized buildup to Saturday’s game. The Vols are 3-0 and climbing up the top-25 polls. Given the rising optimism, another loss to the Gators would be devastating.
But don’t expect Heupel to lose any more sleep preparing for the Gators than he did Akron week. He’s as cool under fire on the sideline as he was quarterbacking Oklahoma to a national championship 22 years ago.
In fact, Heupel might have the perfect coaching demeanor for this historically lopsided rivalry. Adversity doesn’t frazzle him. Even though so much is expected of his high-scoring offense, he's unruffled in the face of three-and-outs. "We will get them next time" is his philosophy.
Heupel’s composure was evident when the Vols fell behind Pittsburgh 10-0 a week ago. And his team played the way he coached in the overtime victory.
If the Vols can play that way against the Gators, the series finally should turn their way.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.