FOOTBALL: UF > UT = SEC?

It's early. Way early. So, this weekend's Gator/Volunteer match-up doesn't mean the season's over for the loser. But, it may determine the season's top Southeastern Conference team…and, lay the foundation for the rest of the 2004 season.

On Tuesday, still four days away from kick-off, UF Head Coach Ron Zook spoke of three major factors for playing a team like Tennessee. "Run the football, play good defense, and have a sound kicking game…and, there's no question that's what this game is going to come down to."

Junior RB Ciatric Fason is the main cog in the Gators backfield. "We have a lot of great backs and Tennessee has a lot of great backs," said Fason, adding that, "they are getting all of the 'pub', because, they've been together longer than we have. They had the chance before us. Now, it's our chance to go out there and prove ourselves."

Last year at Neyland Stadium, the Gators only rushed for 73 yards. That was the lowest total of any game Florida played all season. Also, against two other SEC powerhouses, UF didn't fare so well on the ground (LSU--81 yards and Ole Miss-89 yards).

Florida's backfield lacked experience in those games. But, now, especially with Fason carrying the ball, the running game is more stable, more experienced, and more potent.

"He works extremely hard," Coach Zook said regarding 'C-4'. Not only can he run the football, but, (his) pass protection…and, catching the ball in the backfield…all of the things that you have to be able to do to be an all-around great running back."

But, not even the best running back can do it alone. Fason knows it'll be a tough task for the Gators to stymie the Volunteers defense. "They blitz a lot. That's going to be a big part of our offense…if the running backs and the O-Line can pick-up the blitzes to help Chris (Leak) out…and, make plays."

So, it may be fitting that the team who makes the least mistakes may be the team that comes out on top. The Vols seem to have the advantage only because the game is in Knoxville.

"We're not really worried about the crowd. The Swamp is just as crazy as their stadium," said Junior WR Dallas Baker, who looks to make a major impact for the Gators come Saturday. "We have to go out and play tight…and, be relaxed. But, not too relaxed. Coach Zook said that he likes the 'big' game atmosphere, but, doesn't like the late start, because, it's a long day. That means the team has to stay focused all day.

Really, though, the Gators shouldn't have a problem staying focused. With an extra week of practice due to the postponement of their first 'actual' game, the Gators should be more than prepared for UT.

Baker agreed and said that, "practice makes perfect!"

Though, not having that first game, and, playing against a 'second-rate' team like Eastern Michigan last week, the Gators now have their work cut out for them, if they're to come away from the Smokies with a victory.

"Obviously, it's a rivalry game. But, also, because it's the first Southeastern Conference game," said Coach Zook pertaining to the pre-game excitement. "Is it a 'big' game --- absolutely! But, it's not the end of the earth."

Coach Zook stressed that his team needs to keep poised, and, maintain their focus on what's important…and, that's winning.


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