Florida will need a potent running attack to win Saturday's game at Tennessee.
GAINESVILLE - The real season for Florida is about to begin.
The clock had barely ticked down to 00:00 Saturday, ending Florida's 49-10 romp over Eastern Michigan, when Ciatrick Fason started thinking about them.
The Gators running back had resisted the urge to look past Eastern Michigan to the SEC rival Volunteers. But when the opener ended, Fason's mind immediately drifted to Knoxville, Tenn.
"I'm fired up about Tennessee," Fason said. "At the end of the game, I started thinking about Tennessee. I know they've got a lot of great linebackers out there, some young quarterbacks. And the way the SEC plays now, that's where you tell the men from the boys."
And the great running backs from the average ones, which usually distinguishes the winning team from the loser in this series.
Football is filled with meaningless stats, but the numbers bearing information about the running game in this series isn't lost on anybody. Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer talked about it Sunday. So, too, did Florida coach Ron Zook.
Simply put, in 12 of the last 14 meetings between the teams, the one with the higher rushing total has come away with the victory.
When Florida travels to Knoxville for Saturday's 8 p.m. SEC opener, the pregame hype may be centered on the quarterbacks - UF's Chris Leak and Tennessee's two freshmen phenoms. But the running backs' value can't be overstated.
"I'll take that running game any day," Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora said. "And I promise you, Chris will too, because it makes things a whole lot easier on him."
Added Leak: "Having a running game like we have helps out so much with the passing game, because it keeps them off balance and keeps the defense honest. Our offensive line did an awesome job (last week) and Ciatrick gets better every week. He's the kind of guy that can go the distance."
Last spring, there was talk that Florida's running game might be a three-pronged attack featuring Fason, redshirt sophomore DeShawn Wynn and sophomore Skyler Thornton. Fason and Wynn split time at the position last season, combining for 1,123 yards (583 and 540, respectively).
But during the offseason, Fason worked himself into the best shape of his life. He improved his speed and added eight pounds (to 218). In preseason practices he impressed the coaches more than ever.
"I believe in rewarding guys that have worked as hard as he has in practice and done all the things we've asked him to do," Zook said.
In putting in the extra work, Fason made good on a promise he made to himself at the end of last season - to become indispensable.
Against Eastern Michigan, he rushed for 105 yards on 16 attempts, his longest run a 44-yarder. The Gators didn't send in Wynn until 7:09 remained in the second quarter. Noone was more surprised than Fason.
"I went to Coach after the first drive and I asked him what running back was up, and he surprised me when he said, "You are.' We usually switch after the first series. But he stuck with me. It felt good."
Fason's emergence as the top back doesn't mean the others won't get their share of playing time, Zook said. In his mind, you can never have enough running backs.
"I have a person keeping track of knowing exactly how many plays Ciatrick is in, and how many times he's run the football, because I want to keep him as fresh as we can," Zook said. "For us to have the best chance of winning and being successful, we're going to need all those guys to run like that."
The players subscribe to that philosophy, too.
"We've got a lot of unselfish running backs, nobody's trying to be the only star in the offense," Wynn said. "After last year, we're all used to rotating. So when we get in, we do our jobs. Nobody has a big ego and I think that's really helping us. It's very rare."
Their styles sometimes dictate who's in the game. Wynn runs over opponents and has great speed. Fason is a slasher, the guy who, according to Fedora, "makes cuts that none of us sees or knows he's going to do."
"I'm the type that's going to do everything I can because I want to score six every time I touch the ball," Fason said. "If I've got to run a guy over to get to it, if I've got to slide my body through a hole, I'm going to do whatever I can. But mostly I'm going to try to use my quickness to my advantage. I feel like I've got a lot of good moves and that's my advantage."
During Florida's five-game winning streak against ranked opponents last season, Fason averaged just over 89 yards. But against Tennessee he had three carries for eight of Florida's 73 yards.
Florida is hoping that an improved offensive line and more experienced Fason and Wynn will be the difference this season.
The outcome most likely will depend on it.