Florida, 18-4 and ranked No. 22 in the Coaches' poll, needs a victory tonight to pull even with Tennessee at 6-2 in the SEC East title chase. A Vol victory would give the Big Orange a 7-1 league record and a two-game lead in the East standings. It also would give Bruce Pearl a 4-1 record against the two-time defending national champs.
It's a safe bet Pearl will pull out all the stops tonight, as he did a year ago. Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning gave UT's pre-game pep talk last year, and Pearl announced a scholarship endowment in the name of Vol senior Dane Bradshaw during pre-game ceremonies. Then Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt, clad in an orange cheerleader outfit, sang "Rocky Top" during the first TV timeout. Spurred by all of this hoopla, the Vols raced to a 50-31 halftime lead en route to a 10-point triumph.
Two factors weigh in Tennessee's favor tonight:
First, the Vols have won 27 consecutive home games, with two of those victories coming at the expense of the Gators (80-76 in 2006, 86-76 in 2007). Pearl called tonight's game "an opportunity for our fans to show off their spirit and for ESPN to be in this building and see the improvements and gist of what we have going on here."
Secondly, eight of the Gators' top nine players are freshman or sophomores. Junior guard Walter Hodge is the team's elder statesman. Pearl says fans should not be deceived by Florida's lack of experience, however.
"Don't feel sorry for Florida," he said. "They are a new team but they have a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans and a great coach (Billy Donovan). They are hard to guard because they will put four or five guys on the floor that can all shoot it, can all handle it."
The Gators can shoot it, all right. They outshoot Tennessee from the field (49.3 percent to 46.3) from 3-point range (37.3 to 36.2) and from the foul line (70.8 to 64.6).
In addition to Hodge, a 6-0, 170-pounder who averages 10.3 points per game, Florida's projected starting lineup consists of 6-7, 235-pound sophomore Dan Werner (8.2 points, 6.8 rebounds), 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Marreese Speights (14.0, 7.7), 6-6, 185-pound freshman Nick Calathes (15.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists) and 5-11, 150-pound freshman Jai Lucas (9.3 points).
Interestingly enough, both Tennessee and Florida are 28-11 in SEC play over the past 2½ seasons, sharing the best record among league teams during that span. The Vols will be looking to break that tie tonight ... and make a little history in the process.