Just last season, as the Gators were preparing for the long-awaited game against rival Tennessee that would determine who would get to play for the chance to play Miami in the Rose Bowl, the general consensus around college football was that Florida would continue its decade-long dominance of the Vols and move onto the Rose Bowl.
After all, this was Tennessee, the same team the Gators had beaten six of the last seven years and relegated to annual trips to the Citrus Bowl. After all, this was The Swamp, where Peyton Manning couldn't even out duel Doug Johnson. If that wasn't a signal of a sure thing, what was?
However, in the game billed as the biggest ever in The Swamp, Gator fans ended up having to face a stark reality: the SEC no longer belonged to Florida. Tennessee was now the big bad wolf of the conference.
Since Danny Wuerffel graduated, Tennessee, not Florida, has made the most SEC Championship game appearances (3) and won the most titles (2). It is Tennessee who is the favorite going into Saturday, and not just favored by the odds makers.
I would dare to say you would be hard-pressed to find even the most loyal, optimistic Gator fan that would boast with that traditional Florida swagger that the Gators have any psychological edge over Tennessee anymore. Tennessee doesn't have to convince themselves that they can beat Florida anymore. They know they can. Given the recent history of the series, they have very good reason to be confident.
Gator fans should have seen this coming. The miracle win in Knoxville two years ago on Jabar Gaffney's touchdown drop…err… catch, overshadowed the reality of that game, which was that the Vols, with A.J. Suggs at quarterback no less, kicked the Gators' butts for three and a half quarters. And they did it the way Philip Fulmer, after years of taking it on the chin via the Ball Coach, finally figured out how to, not by getting a Peyton Manning and throwing the ball 40 times in a shootout, but by simply smacking the Gators in the mouth and pushing them around physically.
Tennessee figured out what the New England Patriots, and now the rest of the N.F.L., figured out about the St. Louis Rams. You don't beat a finesse team by trying to out finesse them. You beat them by punching them in the mouth.
In the past few years, Tennessee has used Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens behind big, physical offensive lines to pound on the undersized and overmatched Florida front seven. In last year's 34-32 loss, Rex Grossman threw for more than twice as many yards as Casey Clausen, yet it was Stephens' 226 yards on the ground that made the difference in the game.
If Florida is to regain its previous stranglehold on this series, it has to start on the line of scrimmage. So far this season, the idea of that happening does not seem encouraging.
Against Miami, the Gators were once again physically dominated on both sides of the ball, with Willis McGahee, who may not even be Miami's best back when Frank Gore gets healthy, put up his own 200-yard performance, running through gaping holes in the line. On the defensive side, it may have been just as bad. Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle should give Jonathan Colon a cut of the big signing bonus he's going to get in next year's draft off of that performance. Grossman was picking himself up off the turf all day and can probably look forward to more of the same against Tennessee.
No longer do the Gators have Steve Spurrier to make up for the team's lack of toughness with his own creativity and play-calling ability. If the Gators are going to take control of the conference again, they're going to have to be able to bang heads with the Vols and Canes of the college football world.
Sadly, it doesn't appear that they have the personnel to accomplish that yet. Florida only has one legitimate run-stuffer on the defensive line in Ian Scott. Florida has no defensive ends over 260 pounds and no linebackers over 240 pounds. With Tennessee bringing their own big physical O-Line, the Gators must find a way to give some resistance to the power running game.
As for the running backs, talented sophomores Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis may not be household names, but then again, neither was Willis McGahee before he played the Gators.