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The ante is raised this week

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 16, 2002

GAINESVILLE -- The Sept. 7 game against Miami was big for Florida, but Saturday's showdown against Tennessee is even bigger, Florida coach Ron Zook said Sunday.

The fourth-ranked Vols (2-0) host No. 10 Florida on Saturday with huge SEC East implications on the line.

"I think it's bigger from the standpoint that it's in the Southeastern Conference and it's the Eastern Division," Zook said. "Miami was a big game, a very big game because of the state of Florida and so forth. But the SEC is what we're trying to get through and get to, so from that standpoint it probably is a bigger game than Miami."

Florida entered the Miami game after a 51-3 win against UAB. The Gators (2-1) head to Knoxville fresh off a 34-6 win against winless Ohio University -- a game in which the Gators led 14-6 at halftime.

Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer knows firsthand how intense the rivalry can be. The Vols were idle Saturday, so they've had more time to think about the game.

"It's like every other one, it's the first big game of the Eastern Division SEC race," Fulmer said. "I think our kids, they were in tune last week and hopping around. We didn't stay on the practice field real long but we got some very quality work with the guys and now it's time to step it up a notch. I think they'll be ready to do that."

Zook knows that with one loss already this season, a win Saturday could go a long way in continuing to build the confidence of players who are still grappling with new offensive and defensive systems. It also could also quell some unrest growing among fans.

Less than 30 minutes after the Gators' win Saturday, Zook acknowledged the magnitude of it all.

"It's all going to come down to this: Everybody's going to judge (us) next week anyway," he said.

KEEP IT COOL: Florida quarterback Rex Grossman said he'll spend the week focusing on playing the Vols without getting too caught up in the hype.

"I found myself keyed up all week for Miami and I think that had an effect on me," he said. "I'm going to concentrate on staying on an even keel (this week)."

Grossman completed at least one pass to four receivers Saturday, part of an effort to get more of them involved to take pressure off Taylor Jacobs.

"As receivers, we took it upon ourselves individually to step up and make more plays and take over more of the load," said receiver Matt Jackson, who caught three passes for 49 yards. "We won and we feel good; now we go get ready for Tennessee. Obviously it's a big game. In order for us to accomplish our goals, we have to go to Tennessee and win."

UNDERDOGS AGAIN: Florida is back in the Top 10 in the national rankings, but the Gators know they'll be considered the underdogs in Knoxville, Tenn.

Possibly even among their own fans.

After hearing intermittent boos from the fans at Florida Field on Saturday, the Gators have again taken an us-against-the-world approach.

"We can't really worry about that (the boos)," offensive lineman Shannon Snell said. "Outside of the team, I don't think anybody believes we're going to do well this year. I don't think anybody believes we're going to beat Tennessee next week, you know? We've got to keep it close in the family and not even worry about it."

GOES WITH THE TERRITORY: Now in his 11th season with the Vols, Fulmer knows what Zook is going through.

"They're on your back if you lose one or anything," Fulmer said. "That's just the nature of the beast. Ron's a professional and he'll handle all that fine. I know he's worried about his football team, not what the fans are thinking or saying. And that's the only way you can do it."

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