Launching point

Every successful college football coach has one - a signature win that elevates his career from promising to imposing.

In his fourth game as head man of the Georgia Bulldogs Mark Richt shocked a sixth-ranked Tennessee team 26-24 in a nationally televised game at Knoxville on Oct. 6, 2001. That proved to be a springboard for the Dawgs, who went 13-1 a year later.

Later that season Nick Saban posted his first signature win, also at Tennessee's expense. He guided a heavy underdog LSU team to a 31-20 upset of the second-ranked Vols in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome and rode that momentum to a national title two years later.

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen got his signature win in 2010, shocking No. 22 Florida 10-7 in Gainesville en route to a 9-4 record, the Bulldogs' best showing in 11 years.

Auburn's Gene Chizik got his signature win in 2010, as well. A 35-27 upset of No. 12 South Carolina last September put the Tigers on a roll that produced a 14-0 record plus SEC and national championships.

Tennessee's Derek Dooley came ridiculously close to posting a signature win last October at No. 12 LSU but was denied, so he's still waiting for that springboard victory to launch his program. It could arrive Saturday in Gainesville, when his unheralded Volunteers face No. 16 Florida at The Swamp.

Naturally, Dooley downplays the notion that Game 3 is any bigger than Game 1 vs. Montana or Game 2 vs. Cincinnati. Check out this classic coach-speak:

"It's the third game; it's the first SEC game. We could win down there and then go get shellacked the next six weeks in a row or we could lose down there and then go play great six weeks."

Tennessee's fans know better, of course. So do Tennessee's players. They understand that snapping a six-game series losing streak against a ranked team on its home field is almost certain to give the Big Orange program a tremendous lift.

"This is a huge game for us," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "If we win this game it gives us a ton of confidence going farther on into the season. If we come away victorious it's definitely going to set the tone and create some excitement around here."

Senior tailback Tauren Poole used the same word to summarize the importance of this game.

"I think it's huge," he said. "It's the SEC opener; you've got to be excited about it. You've got to be excited about the opportunity to play a great football team. It's a (nationally) televised ball game, so we've got to get our minds prepared to play some good football and have confidence going into The Swamp."

Having grown up in Tennessee, sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith knows that the Florida game is a measuring stick for the Vols. Each of Tennessee's last four wins in the series (1998, 2001, 2003 and 2004) propelled the Big Orange to an SEC Eastern Division title.

"It means a chance to go to the SEC Championship," Smith said. "The last time we beat Florida that's where we ended up. That's something I've wanted to do ever since I set foot on this campus and, hopefully, we can make that happen this year."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories