By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published September 17, 2005
Tonight's shootout: 8 p.m.,
the Swamp, Gainesville. TV: Ch. 10. | Radio: 620-AM. Line: UF by 6. Weather: 83 degrees, 30 percent chance of rain.
GAINESVILLE - Ask most Florida players to name the Gators' biggest rival, and listening to the answer can be akin to this week's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Lots of talk, no real answers.
They'll drone on and on about how there are so many, particularly when you play in the SEC. There's Georgia, the hated opponent with the storied history. And of course Florida State. And Auburn always will get a rise out of older Gators.
Okay, let's try this one: If you could win only one game all season, which would it be?
"I have to say Tennessee," cornerback Dee Webb said. "They could determine our season. Whoever wins will be in a good situation for the SEC championship (berth), and whoever loses will be fighting uphill for the SEC championship. There's a lot of bitterness from last season, a lot of payback for them. They have beat us the last couple of years, so we've got to go back and regain the Swamp this year."
"It's got to be Tennessee," linebacker Billy Latsko said. "It's the first SEC game, and we've got to win this game to get our season going. And there's the bitterness from last season."
When No. 5 Tennessee plays No. 6 Florida in a nationally televised game tonight, it will be a reunion of teams that annually bolster or dash each other's chances for championships and just generally get on each other's nerves.
Just like old-fashioned rivals should.
"Tennessee is at the top," senior center Mike Degory said. "Everything's going to come down to this game. This is our measuring stick: how our (new) offense is going to do in the SEC; where we're going to end up at the end of the season. If we're going to take back the Swamp, it's got to start (tonight). We've had this date marked since January, so we understand the importance of this game."
The Vols have become the top rival for good reason.
It started in 1992, when the SEC added South Carolina and Arkansas and split into divisions. Suddenly, the game between Florida and Tennessee became pivotal for each team's SEC title chances. "It's obviously a huge game in the SEC, being that we're in the same division and the two winningest programs in the SEC over the last 10 years," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "This game has meant a great amount to the team that wins it, and it puts the other team in a bit of a chase mode." During his 12-year tenure, former Florida coach Steve Spurrier did his part to stoke the fires of the rivalry. A native of Tennessee, it was Spurrier who quipped, "You can't spell Citrus without UT," referring to the Vols' perennial SEC East runnerup status and resulting Citrus Bowl berth. He often poked fun at Fulmer, and Spurrier went 8-4 against the Vols, drawing the ire of Tennessee fans.
Florida has lost three of the past five meetings and the past two. Once dominant on its homefield, the Gators are 13-6 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2002 and hope tonight starts a new era. "Every game is a big game, but the one that I personally have got to win because of what they've done to us since I've been here is Tennessee," junior punter Eric Wilbur said. "The way it ended last year, the way their fans were after that game in their stadium, it was bad. And then my freshman year, they came here and all that stuff with (Casey) Clausen. He's gone, but still, we remember. It's definitely Tennessee."
In 2002, Clausen jumped into the stands and led the UT band in Rocky Top after quarterbacking the Vols' upset in Gainesville. Humiliated Florida players watched the celebration from their tunnel. Last season, a controversial penalty with less than a minute left then a failure to restart the clock properly led to the Vols' winning, last-second field goal. Bitterness abounds. And then, of course, some have personal reasons.
"I don't like them. I never liked that school," junior receiver Andre Caldwell said. "When I came out of (Jefferson) High, they recruited me. And when they signed another receiver, they dropped me. So I'm going to show them why they should have kept me on their list even though I didn't want to go there."
It's Urban Meyer's introduction to an SEC rivalry, and the nation will be watching to see if his spread offense can succeed against bigger, faster SEC players. Meyer isn't pretending to know exactly what to expect.
"I have a pretty good feel for this week's opponent," he said. "I've coached for a few years. I have not coached in this game, but I have watched this game from afar."
Throughout the week, Florida players have been quick to point out tonight's game isn't a matter of life or death. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many said they don't want to portray it as larger than life.
But with a chance to beat your most hated rival and climb into the Top 5 for the first time since 2001, strictly in the world of football, it doesn't get any bigger than this.
"In a football sense of my life, this is it," linebacker Todd McCullough said. "As your career is winding down here at Florida, this is the game. You've seen how it plays out. You know how special and important this game is. You can bet that all the seniors out there are going to be doing everything we can to get the team to win this game. We've been in this before. We know how to prepare for it. The coaches are going to do a great job with us. This game is something you mark down every year.
"It's not the entire season, but this is Florida-Tennessee. How can you not think this is important?"