BY: RANDY MOORE
Apparently, the old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie never made its way to the Sunshine State. The Florida Gators seem intent on aggravating the Tennessee Vols, and they've done a bang-up job of it.
Head coach Urban Meyer got the ball rolling last September by running up the score on UT in a 59-20 annihilation at The Swamp. Linebacker Brandon Spikes added insult to injury by saying the Vols quit.
These actions were so annoying that they prompted a response from the Vols' usually stoic head coach.
"If they don't respect us," Phillip Fulmer grumbled, "why do they practice?"
Certainly, the oddsmakers don't respect the Vols, whom they have installed as seven-point underdogs. Of course, those same oddsmakers made the Vols 17-point underdogs in 2001 only to look foolish when the Big Orange prevailed 34-32 in Gainesville.
Meyer, the so-called "Urban Legend" of college coaching, isn't nearly so legendary when he ventures outside The Swamp. He lost 31-3 at Alabama, 21-17 at LSU and 30-22 at South Carolina in 2005. He lost 27-17 at Auburn in 2006. He lost 28-24 at LSU, 42-30 to Georgia at Jacksonville and 41-35 to Michigan at Orlando (Capital One Bowl) in 2007. On his only previous trip to Knoxville Meyer's 2006 Gators had to rally from a 10-point third-quarter deficit to win 21-20.
Many Vol fans fret that quarterback Jonathan Crompton – making just his fourth career start – can't beat a team as talented as the fourth-ranked Gators. Well, he doesn't have to. Remember 1998? Tee Martin – making just his second career start – completed only 7 of 20 passes for 64 yards, yet the Vols were able to stun a second-ranked Florida team 20-17.
How did Tennessee prevail with so little help from its quarterback? Simple. The '98 Vols had some productive rushers and some tenacious defenders.
Fulmer's 1998 squad wasn't the first Tennessee team to lean on a quality ground game and a rugged defense, of course. Some guy named Bob Neyland won quite a few games using that same formula.
THE CASE FOR FLORIDA
Do I really have to make a case for Florida after 16 years of domination including last season's 39-point tail whipping administered by a Gator team that was rebuilding after winning a national title in Urban Meyer's second season in Gainesville.
Such routs were regular fare in the 90's beginning with a 31-0 drubbing in the rain at Neyland Stadium, the third game of Peyton Manning's freshman season on The Hill. Three years later Manning was a senior when the Vols were beaten 33-20 in the Swamp. Tennessee went on to win eight straight until running into Nebraska at the Orange Bowl in Tom Osborne's historic last game.
The next four games in the series were decided by four points or less until Florida, under Ron Zook, recorded a 30-13 upset victory in Knoxville in ‘02. Tennessee won the next two years against Captain Zook‘s Gators and lost the last three against accomplished neophyte Urban "NIghtmare" Meyer. Think a young Steve Spurrier only a better recruiter and minus the Ol' Ball Coach's penchant for visors and self veneration. Florida's average margin of victory has been 16-points per contest.
Since the 1998 championship season Tennessee has only beaten Florida once in Knoxville. Overall Phillip Fulmer is 5-11 vs. Florida — 3-7 vs. Spurrier, 2-1 vs. Zook and 0-3 vs. Meyer. One of the victories over Spurrier was credited to Fulmer as interim head coach. even with game in the win total Fulmer is 3-5 against Florida in Knoxville, winning at home only twice in the last 14 years.
In short Florida has always been the spear in Fulmer's side, the fly in his ointment, his Great White Whale. Like Ahab whose sleep was tormented by the imposing specter of Moby Dick, he must be haunted by the ghost of Gators past.
Such a one-sided record against an archrival and division competitor is troubling enough, but it's the manner of Florida's success that hangs heavily in the autumn air on The Hill. Much is made of the importance of the running game and how the better rushing team almost always wins this contest. It's true the running game is a reliable barometer for determining winners but it's true test if toughness and imposing one's will over an opponent.
In dazzling clashes of complex strategy, colorful personalities, superlative speed and next level personnel, victory in this series usually goes to the team that is more physical and has the greater will to win. That sounds like a nebulous term but it is a factor that manifest itself in performance whether it's having the discipline not to jump before the snap, or the poise to knock a big kick through the uprights, or the timing to grab victory from the jaws of defeat, or the grit to run for two yards on third down at a critical juncture of the game. It is at the core of sustaining a drive on the ground for the purpose of wearing down the defense while controlling both space and time.
Florida has done those things better than Tennessee the last three years because it has had superior starters, depth, team speed and playmakers. The Vols have closed the gap but not enough to turn the tide.