Mother Nature Might Be Saturday's Star

Saturday's SEC showdown between Tennessee and Florida is being played at Neyland Stadium, but game-time conditions may resembled The Swamp.

Weather forecasts, which include a high probability for rain and warm
temperatures, indicate a muggy afternoon could be in store for the
107,000-plus fans expected to file in for the 3:30 kickoff. While Mother
Nature appears ready to provide a steam bath, Tennessee supporters, who
have never been accused of being fair-weather fans, will do their part to
make it hostile.

That's a one-two punch that could have an major impact on the pigskin
proceedings, and it's more the norm than the exception when it comes to this
explosive series.

This will be the tenth time Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer has led the Vols
against the Gators and, if forecast are correct, this will be the sixth time
in a decade that weather conditions has been more fitting for the Oregon
Ducks.

The worst of those years might have been the first (1992) when Fulmer was
the interim head coach filling in for Johnny Majors, who was on the mend
from heart surgery. It was also the last played between these teams on
artificial surface.

That surface was covered by a raging torrent of runoff as the rained poured
down throughout the last three quarters of the game. Under the direction of
sophomore QB Heath Shuler in only his third career start, the Vols bolted
from the gate to gain an early lead and Florida's comeback efforts were
dampened by the rain and a determined Vol defense. Tennessee won the contest
31-14, one week after upsetting Georgia in Athens.

In 1993, it was the Vols who fell behind early in The Swamp and failed to
catch up. However Tennessee didn't go down without a fight, as the Vols
closed with a rush to lose 41-34 in a game that it trailed by three
touchdowns before the skies opened up and the rain fell in sheets. Although
the game went into the public's mental archive as a Florida blowout,
Tennessee did have a chance to recover an onside kick at the end for a
potential, albeit, long-shot tying score.

In 1994, Tennessee played its first home game of the season against the
Gators after splitting a pair of road contests at UCLA and Georgia. A steady
rain fell throughout the game although not the downpour variety of the O92
and O93 contests. This marked the first home game appearance by quarterback
Peyton Manning and the first UT home game played on natural turf since the
Vanderbilt game in 1967. It was also the last time Tennessee was shut out
(31-0).

It didn¹t rain in 1995, although Tennessee had to endure a deluge in the
second half as Florida put 42 points on the board en route to a 62-38
victory.

Rain fell intermittently in 1996 as Florida followed a familiar formula to
victory, jump out to an early lead, appear on the verge of a blowout and
survive a late Tennessee rally. The Gators came away with a 35-29 win and
went on to win the national title.

Manning had his last shot at the Gators in 1997, but a rugged Florida
defense and a nonexistent Tennessee rushing attack doomed the Vols to a
33-20 defeat. Once again the rain made an appearance but, outside of the
occasional slip, it never appeared to have much effect on play.

Rain was called for in the 1998 meeting but, except for a brief shower, it
held off. Of course, that was the game when the Vols ended their five-game
losing streak to the Gators and went on to win their first national
championship since 1951.

Rain stayed away the next three years and the weather jinx seemed to be a
thing of the past. However, if it returns to influence Saturday's contest,
who will be the benefactor?

Well that depends on when the rain falls and how hard. The drainage on
Shield-Watkins Field is excellent and traction should be good to fair
according to the rain's intensity.

The guess here is if it rains throughout the game, the advantage goes to
Tennessee because the Vols have a better run defense. Florida's passing
attack is more dependent on timing which could also be disrupted by wet
grounds or driving rain. If Tennessee fans' spirits remain high and dry that
will make Rex Grossman's job that much tougher.

Ball security will also become more problematical and Tennessee has taken
better care of the football to this point of the season. A victory would be
Tennessee's second in a row over Florida and that hasn't happened since the
1970-71 seasons.

It's fair to say with crafty Casey Clausen at the reins, Florida's reign
might end in the rain and Vol fans will be singing in the rain.


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