VETTEL: Ten Months In The Making

Last December 4, Urban Meyer was formally named the next head football coach at the University of Florida. Since that day most of us have had the date September 17 firmly planted in the backs of our minds. Yeah, spring practice was intriguing. The Gator Club tour was so popular and positive I dubbed it the "Urban Meyer Unification Tour."

Fall camp at a strange location on campus was a first shot to see how the demanding off-season program had prepared this team for competition and the first two games gave us snippets of what this scheme might be capable of producing.

But let's be honest. THIS is what it's all about. The Tennessee game.

Rivalry Returns To Prominence

As far as I'm concerned, the Florida-Tennessee game was the top conference rivalry in the nation from 1990 through 2002. In those 13 years, both teams were ranked in the top 15 every time with at least one in the top ten. TEN times both were in the top ten and four times both were in the top five.

This is a rivalry that has given us Peyton Manning versus Danny Wuerffel. It gave us Travis Henry's running against Rex Grossman's passing. It gave us Dale Carter's kick return and Lawrence Wright's thunderous hit on Joey Kent. Florida-Tennessee also brought us Jabar Gaffney's goal line "catch" and Dallas Baker's late game "penalty." It's provided James Wilhoit's game-winning kick and Collins Cooper's game-losing miss.

Florida-Tennessee showed us the greatest stretch Steve Spurrier's offense ever put together… seven straight touchdowns in '95 that turned a 30-14 deficit into a 62-37 laugher. It brought us the most-hyped game ever, the '96 showdown, only to have the Gators score 35 unanswered points at the start.

This rivalry has slipped in the last two years as both teams entered the game ranked, but not in the top ten. That changes Saturday when the largest crowd in the history of the state will pack The Swamp to see #5 against #6.

The Gators Will Be Ready...

What This Game Will Show

Saturday night will mark the toughest opponent Urban Meyer has ever faced as a head coach. The same goes for assistants Dan Mullen, John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales. More significantly it will be the finest defense to line up against Meyer's spread offense.

This game will show how well Florida's staff can prepare a team for an epic battle. It will show what kind of adjustments are made during the course of the game as they see what will/won't work against Tennessee's impressive front seven. It will show how this offense can move the ball around and utilize multiple playmakers. And it most likely will show whether the physical and mental grind these guys have been put through since the first of the year will result in a team that can finish the deal in the fourth quarter.

This game will also challenge Florida's co-coordinator defensive system as the Gators deal with an opponent that can beat you both in the air and on the ground. It will challenge Florida's fortified defensive line to stand up to a team committed to a power running attack that has the assets to make it work. And it'll challenge the Florida staff to give meaningful playing time to reserves to keep the front wall fresh for as much of the night as possible.

And this game will show if Florida has progressed to the point where the Gators are ready, willing and able to re-claim The Swamp. After six home losses in the last three years, teams no longer fear Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. That only changes with big wins. Florida gets two chances this year and one is this week. To re-claim The Swamp the Gators must win this game.

What This Game Won't Show

One of the silliest things I have heard this week is how Saturday night's game will prove whether or not this offense will "work" against the speed and strength of the SEC. How absurd. It will show how this offense does against this defense on this evening, and that's all it will do.

Want proof? In 1990 Florida had a new, high-tech offense that many thought was too "cute" to succeed in the tough, physical SEC. That offense went to work against fifth-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville and produced the grand total of three points.

That sure proved a lot, didn't it?

This game will leave both teams with a lot of answers and maybe a few more questions. And it will leave them with a lot of football still to be played. If both the Gators and Vols play at the top of their game, it might also re-establish this game as the premier in-conference matchup in college football. (Especially the way Oklahoma's playing!)

Biggest Key on Each Side of the Ball

There are all kinds of plots and subplots to this game and matchups to delve into, but others are taking care of that. To me this game really comes down to which team can exploit a strength-versus-weakness matchup.

Tennessee's greatest strength over the years has been its power running game. That should be the same this year with an excellent offensive line and Gerald Riggs is a fine running back. Florida's defensive front must limit the Vols ability to play ball control, and that means putting Tennessee into bad down and distance situations. If Tennessee is in second-and-four or better much of the game, Florida's in trouble. If the Vols are in second-and-eight instead, the Vols might have to get out of their comfort zone.

Despite the improved running game last week, I don't think Gator success on the ground is crucial. Sure some yardage and balance is always preferred, but that's not where the Gators can win this thing. Tennessee was last in the SEC in allowing 236 passing yards a game and 19 passing touchdowns last year. UAB threw for 282 without much speed at wide receiver in game one. Florida must protect Chris Leak and give him time to exploit the Vols secondary. If he has that time, he can have a huge day.

(Photos by Glenn Danforth)

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