of this stupendous September struggle between southern football super powers.
With so much formidable firepower on each side of the field, the public
perception is this series is a high-caliber, high-stakes shootout between
highly skilled squads. Certainly there's no shortage of big plays in
reviewing the recent history of this contest, but more often than not it is
a war of wills rather than a war of weapons.
In reality, the awesome offensive arsenals at each team's disposable tend to
neutralize the other as these heavyweights bombard each other with an
assortment of big plays.
When the smoke clears from the pigskin pyrotechnics, the dense cloud of dust
rising from the trenches reveals the most relevant battle. Simply put: the
team that wins the battle in the trenches wins the game.
No doubt strategy is a consequential component in determining the outcome,
turnovers are a significant stat and the kicking game is an important key.
Big plays are a bonus and field position a factor, but in final analysis the
game is decided by the side that consistently controls the 12 inches that
comprise the neutral zone.
And the only way to control the neutral zone is by establishing the run
which means winning a war of wills by taking the fight to the opponent and
keeping it there for 60 minutes.
Of course, it follows that the defense has to stop the run.
That's why the true barometer of this exquisite, annual encounter is rushing
yards. In fact the winner of 11 of the last 12 contests between the
Volunteers and Gators has been won by the team that gained the most yards on
The lone exception is the 2000 contest which is really more aberration that
exception. That was the year Tennessee won in the trenches and rushed for
more yards than Florida (203 to 39), but still came up short on the
UT established the run and dominated the game in the first half, but only
had a 12-7 half-time lead after settling for four field goals. The Vols
weren't able to maintain that advantage in the second half without bell cow
Fred Weary leading the charge up front. Weary went down with a season-ending
leg fracture late in the first half and the Vols couldn¹t carry the fight to
the Gators for 60 minutes.
Tennessee was also hamstrung by an inexperienced freshman quarterback who
lacked the arm strength to stretch Florida's defensive secondary which sold
out to the run in the second stanza.
Even at that, Florida needed a controversial call to go in its favor on the
road before the largest crowd in SEC history (108,768) and a national TV
audience. Which goes to prove there¹s no defense against a bad call in a
Although that game went to the Gators and its anemic ground attack, the Vols
still could have won by simply converting a fourth-and-one in Florida
territory late in the game.
Similarly, Tennessee had an excellent chance to win in 1999 despite losing
the ground game, but again failed to pick up a long yard on fourth down in
Florida territory on its final drive of the game, as the Gators stopped
Jamal Lewis in his tracks.
With Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer at the helm of Florida and Tennessee
for the last 10 meetings between these schools, the war of wills has been
reflected in the strategy as much as the trenches. Fulmer, an offensive
lineman, built his offense around the run, while Spurrier, a quarterback,
favored an air attack and wasn¹t opposed to establishing the pass to set up
In fact, Tennessee's team, particularly its defense, was custom built to
match up with Florida. That¹s understandable since UT had to beat Florida to
have a shot at the SEC or national title. As the Vols have become stronger
verses the run over the years, Florida has been forced to become more
one-dimensional and Tennessee began to reverse the Gators domination of this
series. Florida won five of the first six games Fulmer coached in the
series, but the last four have been split with the Gators scoring 98 total
points to the Vols 97.
This year with Spurrier no longer on the scene and with defensive specialist
Ron Zook as head coach, the strategy is sure to change. Florida's new
offensive system has meant big adjustments especially for signal caller Rex
Grossman who was a perfect Fun and Gun system QB.
Florida appears to be particularly vulnerable across the defensive front as
it is allowing 211 yards per game on the ground compared to Tennessee's
71.5. (Of course those numbers reflect the one-sided defeat to Miami.) The
Gators should improve their numbers on offense as they grow more acclimated
to Zook's system, but getting well in the course of one week seems a little
too much to expect especially with the game being played in Knoxville where
Fulmer is 55-5.
Still Florida's best chance of winning is to establish the run behind an
offensive line that enjoys a considerable size advantage over the Vols
quicker defensive front. Likewise Tennessee will try to work the Gators
D-line over inside. That's not to say Casey Clausen won't check off to
passes if Florida crowds the line of scrimmage, but Tennessee will continue
to press the attack between the tackles.
That's Coach Fulmer¹s nature and the history of the series, as well as
Neyland¹s seventh maxim of football, suggests that's the surest path to