September 18 could be a defining game for UF & UT

For years it was the biggest game in September in the Southeastern Conference, and more than once, it was the game that decided which SEC team would be in the hunt for the national championship at season's end. No one will be predicting national championships for either Florida or Tennessee when the two teams meet in Knoxville September 18 in the SEC opener for both teams, but this is a game that could define not just an entire season but the direction these two programs are moving.

It is no longer The Evil Genius vs. Phat Phil. It is no longer Peyton vs. Danny. Those days have come and gone. Now it is a fight for momentum that should carry one team or the other back to prominence and leave the other team with more questions than early season answers.

In the two years that Ron Zook has been the Florida coach, the Gators have lost 10 games, nearly half the total that Steve Spurrier lost in his 12 years at the UF helm. The Volunteers, still coached by Phil Fulmer, entering his thirteenth season as the boss in Knoxville, have lost eight times in the past two years, and 18 of Tennessee's 28 losses in the Fulmer era have come in the past five seasons. Compared to the records from 1990 until 2001, the loss totals are Star Wars numbers for both teams. They go way beyond the comprehension of restless fans who have grown to expect much, much more from their coaches and their teams.

For Florida, the downturn in fortunes is more easily explained. Spurrier left and with him went an aura of confidence and near invincibility. The Gators lost rarely under Spurrier, never to unranked teams. Zook stepped in to replace Spurrier facing the three-fold problem of replacing a legend, dealing with the high expectations of Gator nation and stockpiling the kind of talent he needs to win his way. There are those who question Zook's sanity to attempt to follow Spurrier, but to his credit, rather than back down from the challenge, he has embraced it from day one.

Zook's third Florida team will be among the nation's youngest. It is a roster that is brimming with speed and potential all-star talent brought to Gainesville in the past two seasons as part of an all-out recruiting blitz by Zook and an aggressive staff of assistants. Zook has answered the questions about stockpiling the talent, and even though he is 7-1 on the road in the SEC during his two years, the inexplicable losses to Ole Miss the past two years as well as some fourth quarter meltdowns raise questions that will only cease when UF gets back in the championship hunt. A win at Neyland Stadium in front of one of college football's loudest and most hostile crowds will help silence many of the critics.

For the Vols, the slippage is more difficult to explain. There has been no change of coaches nor has there been a change in philosophy. The Vols still try to beat people by being more physical, playing sound defense, running the ball and throwing to speedy skill athletes. Still, there have been only two double-digit winning seasons in the last five, so obviously, something serious has gone wrong.

At least some of the slippage in Knoxville can be attributed to the rise of Georgia under Mark Richt. Richt has produced 32 wins in three seasons, has been in the SEC title game the past two years and he owns an SEC championship (2002). Perhaps of greater significance is the near shutdown of the pipeline from the Atlanta area to Knoxville that has for so many years kept the Vols loaded with big, fast talented players who filled up the roster. Since Richt arrived on the scene at Georgia, the floodgate of talent escaping Georgia to the north has become a trickle, forcing Tennessee to look elsewhere for talent. The Vols' roster of 2004 doesn't look nearly as imposing as in years past.

Most teams wouldn't consider 46 wins in the past five seasons as a sign that there is something seriously wrong, but in Knoxville fans have grown to expect a team that has both top five talent and aspirations every year. Just as dismayed are Gator fans who have seen just 45 wins in the past five years. Since the national championship season of 1998, the Vols have appeared in the SEC championship game just once (lost to LSU). Since the Gators won the national championship in 1996, Florida has won the SEC just once (2000) and appeared in the championship game in 1999 (lost to Alabama).

Coming into the 2004 season, the Gators are viewed as a team on the rise in the SEC. The disappointments of the previous two seasons have given way to the promise of two consecutive recruiting classes that are ranked among the nation's best. There is anticipation of a fast, talented team that has the ability to overcome its youth and inexperience. There is no mistaking that the talent level in Gainesville is on the rise and there is a potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Chris Leak who seems poised to take the Gators back to the good old days of winning championships. Leak alone presents the Gators with a marquee type of talent who strikes fear into opponents. A year of experience for Leak and improvements in the speed department along with expected improvement in the offensive line give rise to expectations of a quick strike offense that can hang big numbers on anyone.

Entering the 2004 season, there are more questions at Tennessee than any year of the Fulmer era. The Vols are predicted to finish third in the SEC East and some writers believe that the slide would be even further if the gap between the top three in the SEC East and the bottom feeders were not so great. The questions are quarterback are significant. Chris Leak's brother, CJ, is the experience there. He threw all of eight passes last year and there have been questions about his decision making ability since he stepped on campus. The other choice is Rick Claussen, Casey's little brother, whose abilities have never exactly struck fear into anyone or two freshmen. The wideouts seem rather pedestrian, the running backs have never lived up to their signing day hype, the line is rebuilding and the defense, though, steady, lacks experience on the line and in the secondary.

For Florida, this is a game that is seen as a confidence builder for a young team. A win in Knoxville followed by what should be home wins against Kentucky and Arkansas would set the table for UF to repeat last year's upset of LSU. This time the Gators face the Tigers in The Swamp. A win in Knoxville could give UF the confidence it needs to win against LSU and possibly take an undefeated record into the first weekend of November for the annual showdown in Jacksonville with Georgia. A loss and the Gators could spend two weeks regrouping for LSU instead of riding a high of confident momentum. A loss and the Gators could be battling for their SEC East lives the rest of the way. Last year there was a three-way tie at 6-2 for the division lead with Tennessee and Georgia . It's doubtful that two losses will win the division this year.

A win for UF would also send a shot across Georgia's bow. Georgia faces LSU the week before the Tigers come to Gainesville. The following week Georgia is at home against Tennessee. A Florida win in Knoxville puts the pressure squarely on Georgia's back and no one is more aware than Richt that Georgia has beaten Florida only one time since 1990 and that he is 0-3 personally against the Gators. A Florida win also puts Tennessee with its back to the wall and that could also be bad news for Georgia, facing the defending national champs one week, then a Tennessee team with something to prove the next.

Tennessee fans see the Florida game as the first step back to respectability. Three straight losses to Georgia have put the Vols clearly on the backpeddle in the SEC East. A loss to Florida in the first SEC game with Auburn and Georgia looming on the schedule within a month puts priority on coming out of the gates fast. A team without proven playmakers cannot afford a lull in team confidence so early in the year. A win, however, and the Vols suddenly loom large on both the conference and national scenes.

The Florida-Tennessee game has always been one of tremendous importance, just that no one ever figured it would be a defining game for the direction the two programs are heading. Less than ten weeks remain until the Gators and Vols strap it on. In the days and weeks to come, the pressure will begin building. The team that handles the pressure best in these next weeks is going to be the team that emerges from that game with a clear vision on the future. The team that loses could be facing an uphill battle the rest of the season.

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