The Game: It Seems Like Old Times Again

It seems like old times again, doesn't it? The luster that somehow faded away in the last three years seems to be back in the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. It's evident in the rankings and the heightened expectations of two rabid fan bases that the game is back on the pedestal again, back where it ought to be.

The Swamp always rocks for a Florida-Tennessee game but this year the crowd should be a bit more frenzied and the decibels at a higher pitch than we've seen in awhile.

The Florida-Tennessee game is always one that has long term implications in the Southeastern Conference. These are the two programs that have dominated the SEC the past 15 years, winning 10 conference championships and each school winning a national title, Florida in 1996, Tennessee in 1998. Florida won the SEC six times and had the best record in the SEC in 1990 when Tennessee got the title on a technicality --- Florida was serving a one-year probation for something that happened under a different coaching staff and before any player on the UF roster was on scholarship. The SEC has never gotten around to stripping Alabama of its probation tainted 1999 conference championship. Florida was in the SEC title game that year and if the SEC wants to play fair, the Tide should be stripped of the championship just as the league stripped Florida of its probation tainted 1984 title. Ironically, Tennessee voted to strip Florida of the 1984 championship and voted to make the Gators ineligible for the 1990 championship.

The game had all the hype it could handle for 12 years when Steve Spurrier was the constant antagonist for Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer. Spurrier just never could bite his tongue whenever there was an opportunity to hurl a verbal javelin Fulmer's way and all that did was ratchet up the intensity of a rivalry that was already intense to begin with.

In eight of the 12 years that Spurrier was Florida's coach, the Gators and the Vols were ranked in the top ten. Florida won five of those games. In the three post-Spurrier years, only the 2002 contest had both teams ranked in the top ten. That game was played in monsoon conditions in Knoxville and for once, all the breaks went Ron Zook's way. He had the better mudders and he got the win.

The last two years have seen both teams ranked the week of the game but neither in the top ten. Even without the high rankings, it has been a big game but the preceding had neither the hype nor expectations that we're seeing once again. Some of the lowered expectations the last two years had something to do with the levels of talent for both teams. In 2003 and 2004, both Florida and Tennessee had a lot of young talent to go with a ton of question marks.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the lowered expectations, however, was the fact that it's hard to hype two plain as vanilla coaches as Ron Zook and Fulmer. Zook may be a charismatic recruiter but he just doesn't bring the kind of antagonism to a rivalry that came with Spurrier. Zook is the guy who would go into Baskin-Robbins, ask for a sample of all 31 flavors and then order two scoops of vanilla. Fulmer's idea of charisma would be to go into that same Baskin-Robbins and just for the pure hell of it, add some sprinkles to the two scoops of vanilla.

Spurrier was Darth Vader to Fulmer's Richard Petty. Spurrier was UFO's, laser swords and death rays, a high tech evil genius. Fulmer was the likeable but not so smart country boy who drives the stripped down Chevy SS396 with the stick shift, real fast for sure, but not the kind of guy anyone accuses of genius. Having Zook follow up Spurrier was like bringing on Tony Orlando after the Beatles finished their fourth encore. Zook was a nice enough guy, but just not the kind of personality that turns on the crowd in the aftermath of genius.

Fulmer's job was never in question the past three years even though Tennessee failed to hit its targets. Zook's job was in doubt the day he signed his first contract. Not only did he not have the kind of captivating personality that Gator fans were accustomed to, he lost 15 games in three years, more than half of what Spurrier lost in 12.

Two vanilla personalities and two teams that fail to meet expectations equals a rivalry game that loses some of its luster. As an added note, it was the week of the Tennessee game last year that Zook had his close encounter with the Pi Kappa Phi house. No one wants to admit it, but if you're looking for the last straw in the Zook era, that was it. Zooker was dead man walking after that incident and the Mississippi State loss was simply the dirt thrown on the casket in an already dug grave.

Enter Urban Meyer.

From the moment that UF President Bernie Machen hired Meyer, the hype and expectation surrounding the Florida program has been in a restoration mode. There were plenty of bridges burned in the previous three years but the very charismatic Meyer has said everything right and done everything right to the point that the Gator Nation is reunited, writing checks in record amounts to the boosters and trying to whip up a case of Alzheimer's when it comes to remembering the Zook Error. The expectations for the Florida program are fairly close if not in excess of those the Gators had in 2001 when Rex Grossman was carving up the SEC.

Of course, Florida lost to Tennessee that year, bringing to a screeching halt the expectation of meeting Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. That game had all the hype and it had all the luster. Tennessee won it, 34-32, at The Swamp. Spurrier's final game at The Swamp was a loss to plain old vanilla Phil and the Volunteers.

This will be Meyer's first SEC game and it's in The Swamp against the same old Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer hasn't changed since Spurrier left. Oh, he may go hog wild and order his ice cream in a waffle cone every now and then, and if you saw him at SEC Media Day, it's obvious his wife buys his clothes somewhere other than your neighborhood Tractor Supply Store these days. Deep down he's the same old Phil and he's got a roster that's highly reminiscent of the same old Vols teams that we remember from the 1990s. They are big, fast and deep at every position. They take on the personality of the coach, too. Nothing fancy, just beat you with talent, size and speed.

Meyer hasn't made any Spurrier-esque remarks nor has he put Tennessee logos in the urinals --- when he was at Utah, he put BYU logos in the urinals the week of that big rivalry game --- but he hasn't had to say a word to bring back the hype and expectation to the levels this game once enjoyed. If anything, his silence has only added to the hype and raised the bar of expectations. It seems that just when everyone was ready to get a handle on this Meyer guy, he clammed up and now everyone is wondering what he's got up his sleeve.

Surely, he's got a zillion surprises in store for the Vols, otherwise why would he choose this week to do his best imitation of Lou Holtz? He did sound quite Holtz-like earlier in the week when he said the Vols were the most talented team he's ever seen in his 20 years of coaching. The Vols are indeed talented but the most talented in 20 years?

The rivalry is back to a fever pitch also because of what happened during the summer, or at least in Florida's case, what didn't happen. While Fulmer was enjoying the summer from hell in Knoxville as his favorite bail bondsman was kept busier than the guy with the only pair of jumper cables at an East Tennessee funeral, Meyer and the Gators were enjoying peace and quiet, a stark contrast to the previous three summers of discontent in Gainesville.

The fact that Meyer got the Gators to go from an R rating to a G in a single summer has added fuel to tonight's game. There were no arrests in Gainesville as the team spent the dog days of summer raising their collective GPA to the highest levels in years and buffing up more than a few bodies that were borderline soft. In Knoxville, there were a slew or arrests on the aftermath of Fulmer declining to sign a petition that would require the Tennessee football players to actually attend class --- Phil said it would put the Vols at a competitive disadvantage. Style and image points definitely belong to the Gators this week.

Throw in Florida's new offense to the mix, too. Just as Spurrier's offense was high tech with all the bells and whistles, Meyer's is every bit if not more creative, quite the counterpoint to Tennessee's tried and tested pound it first philosophy. With Meyer's offense you never know what's coming next. With Fulmer's offense, you know exactly what's coming although knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different animals.

So here we have it, a game once again in which image is every bit a part of the hype and expectation as the athletes who will actually play the game. From a hype standpoiont it's Meyer wearing Italian loafers against Fulmer wearing wing tips and Meyer's Boy Scouts helping little old ladies across the street against Fulmer's muggers getting off scot-free since no body was found.

The hype simply means it is Florida playing Tennessee with both teams back in the top ten once again, right where they belong. Whatever luster that was lost for a couple of years has found its way back to the game. It's good to be back to normal again.

THE FINAL PREDICTION: It's going to be the Gators. Florida can blow the doors off the Vols if they can strike quickly on offense and the defense can force a couple of early turnovers. If it takes awhile for the Gators to get the offense going, then it will be white knuckles all the way, but in the end, the Gators will win it.

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