Searching for The Key to Victory on Saturday

Searching for the key to victory in the annual Tennessee-Florida clash has become a preoccupation with many college football analysts.

At various times some have claimed to solve the riddle, pointing to rushing yards as the key since that category tends to favor the victor. But isn't that true of almost any game Tennessee plays? UT's offense is built around its ability to establish a ground game to bring the safeties up in run support and set up the play-action pass.

When Tennessee was led by Peyton Manning, the Vols offensive line had a difficult time providing consistent protection which convinced many avid followers of the series that getting pressure on the passer was the key to winning. This theory seemed to be underscored by Tennessee's inability to get pressure on Danny Weurffel who wore the Vols' secondary out on more than one occasion. It also made sound reason since both teams featured high-octane offenses with talented casts.

In 1995, Tennessee played a near perfect first half offensively against Florida and had a 30-20 lead at intermission in the Swamp. However, an outbreak of Tennessee turnovers in the second half launched the Gators on a 42-7 run as they routed the Vols 62-37. A disparity of turnovers is normally a major factor in any contest, and that tendency held true in the Florida-Tennessee series.

However all three of those theories appeared faulty in 1998 when Tennessee held a commanding 171 to minus-13 edge in rushing, a decisive five-to-two advantage in sacks and a large five-to-one lead in turnovers, but still needed the Gators to misfire on a point blank field goal in overtime to score a 20-17 victory. If these categories were truly the keys to victory, Tennessee should have won by three touchdowns instead of three points.

In 2000, the Vols once again won the ground game and held an edge in sacks (three to two) while Florida won the turnover battle two to one. Despite running for 164 more yards than Florida, Tennessee fell 27-23 as the Gators drove the field for the winning touchdown in the final minute of play.

In 1999, Tennessee commanded a plus-four lead in turnovers and held a slight edge in rushing, but it wasn't enough to win the war as a Florida team that wasn't nearly as talented at UT prevailed 23-21.

Obviously, all of these components play a role for the Tennessee-Florida winner as they do in virtually any college football game, but no single category is the key to victory in this heated rivalry.

In fact, the key isn't so easily quantified because while it often manifests in rushing yards, turnovers and sacks, it emanates from a one source. Simply put: The key to the Tennessee-Florida series is physicality. The team that is more physical most of the time will win Saturday's game.

In Tennessee's 1998 victory, linebacker Al Wilson set the tone with bad-to-the-bone defense. In 2001, the front five set the tone by controlling the trenches and getting Travis Stephens one-on-one in the secondary. On defense, linebacker Eddie Moore made a memorable hit that reverberated throughout the contest.

In Florida's 1995 victory, Tennessee struck first when Manning connected on a bomb to Joey Kent which caught the Gator secondary by surprise. However before the first half was concluded, Florida stole the initiative when a Gator DB unloaded on Kent crossing the middle. Likewise in 1999, the Gators seized upper hand physically with a late hit on quarterback Tee Martin on the first series. The Vols never really physically responded in a manner that put the game back on equal terms.

In 2000, Tennessee set the tone early behind the power running of Travis Henry who gained 184 yards. However Florida's offense wore down the Vols defensive front in the second half and Dean Palmer threw from the pocket with impunity.

Looking for pregame signs as to which team is better prepared to carry the fight on Saturday is futile. There have been times in the past when players from both teams talked the talk but didn't walk the walk. At other times the team that said little did the most. There have been occasions when Florida's players made good on their boasts and times they haven't, such as 1998.

Tennessee appears to be approaching the game with a quiet confidence while avoiding the type of pre-game hyperbole that inevitably leads to an emotional letdown once the contest is underway.

No, it's not about thumping your chest or running your mouth, it's about knocking heads and smashing mouths. In final analysis, the team that carries the fight on Saturday will also carry the day.

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