How one-sided has the Tennessee-Florida football rivalry gotten?
Well, for one thing the Gators admit they like Tennessee’s fight song, “Rocky Top.”
“I don’t know if I should say it, but I think it’s one of the best fight songs in college football,” Florida Trey Burton told The Palm Beach Post. “I know all the words to it. Whenever I hear it, I sing it.”
The Gators (1-1, 0-0 SEC), ranked 19th nationally, wouldn’t think the Vols’ fight song were so endearing had they not won eight straight games in the series – the team’s longest streak in this rivalry – that stands 23-19 in the Gainesville boys’ favor.
“We’re usually winning,” Florida linebacker Michael Taylor told the Palm Beach paper. “So it’s pretty much an insult to them.”
In many of the games during the eight-game winning streak, the Gators have actually serenaded the Vols with “Rocky Top” during the on-field action.
Tennessee’s last win against Florida was a 30-28 victory on Sept. 19, 2004, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003.
For Tennessee, beating Florida has usually meant good things. The Vols have beaten the Gators four times since 1998 and three times has used the win as a springboard in to the SEC Championship games in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
First-year coach Butch Jones is already familiar in what Florida will bring to Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by CBS.
The Vols are coming off a 59-14 drubbing at second-ranked Oregon, but Jones says Florida’s defense does thing a bit differently than the Ducks.
“Schematically they are a little different,” Jones said. “Florida can play eight, nine deep defensively and there is talent to this first group. That is (taking) nothing from Oregon. Oregon is a fine football team. When you think of defenses in the SEC, you watch Florida on film, they define SEC defenses.”
In four main SEC statistical categories, the Gators are ranked first in total defense (208.5 yards per game) and rushing defense (50.0), second in scoring defense (13.5 points) and third in passing defense (158.5 yards).
Put those numbers side-by-side against Tennessee’s offense and it becomes clear how much of a struggle the Vols may have in The Swamp on Saturday afternoon.
Offensively, the Vols rank 13th in total offense (381.7), fourth in rushing (244.3), 14th in passing (137.3) and seventh in scoring (37.0).
Florida has played two games, beating Toledo, 24-6, and losing to rival Miami, 21-16.
The Vols have three games under their belts, routing Austin Peay, 45-0, and Western Kentucky, 52-20, before being blown out at Oregon, 59-14.
No matter how Tennessee has fared in games leading up to Florida, it has faltered when the Gators rolled around.
In three of the past eight seasons, Tennessee went into the Florida game unbeaten after two games only to lose to the Gators by scores of 21-20 (2006), 33-23 (2011) and 37-20 (2012).
“It is a great rivalry game versus a great football program, a well-coached football team with great football players on the road in a great environment,” Jones said earlier in the week. “It is a great opportunity, but it is going to take everything we have.
“We must be the team that overachieves Saturday. Our players understand the rivalry, what is at stake. I think they understand what has gone on before them. The only thing we can control is our preparation and how we play on Saturday.”
The Vols have an unavoidable fact branded on their psyche – Florida is a nationally ranked opponent. They have a 17-game losing streak against ranked opponents, and they haven’t beaten an SEC foe, other than Vanderbilt, Kentucky or Ole Miss, in the past three years.
Alabama has beaten Tennessee six straight times, the past three by 31 points each. It has lost four of the past five games to Georgia and South Carolina.
Yet, Florida coach Will Muschamp, whom the Vols pursued unsuccessfully after Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal – had this to say: “This is still a huge game for both teams.”
Muschamp left Texas for the Florida job in 2010.
And this game has been much more enjoyable for the Gators for almost a decade.
The Vols haven’t had a winning SEC record since 2007, the last time they captured the Eastern Division title under Phillip Fulmer.
While Tennessee’s offense ranked second behind Texas A&M in the SEC with 475.9 yards per game last season, so far in 2013 it has yet to prove any phase of the unit can withstand the grueling grind of a league schedule dotted with so many land mines.
The Vols have been more successful with the rushing attack led by Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, who have combined to produce 151.7 yards per game. Florida, however, has a way of either taking the run or the pass away from Tennessee, turning its offense into a one-dimensional unit unable to keep pace with the Gators’ usual two-headed monster.
In their last 23 meetings, the team that produced the most rushing yards won 22 times.
“That stat is something we pulled out to talk to those guys about and talk to the running back group,” said running backs coach Robert Gillespie, a four-year letterman at Florida in his playing days. “We have to be able to run the ball. We have to take care of the ball, run the ball, establish a run game, and it will set up everything else.”
A year ago, Florida held Tennessee to 83 rushing yards while piling up 336 on the ground. The Gators won, 37-20, scoring 27 second-half points, including two rushing scores and two passing by quarterback Jeff Driskel.
“It’s typical SEC football,” Vols linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen said. “What Alabama does, what Georgia does and what Florida is now doing, is control the clock and bloody your nose. They run the ball as hard as anybody.”
Speaking of Driskel, the dual-threat quarterback had 300 yards of total offense against the Vols in 2012. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns and rushed eight times for 81 yards.
But Driskel is prone to mistakes if enough heat is applied by aggressive defenses.
In the Miami loss and the Gators’ two defeats in 2012, Driskel had 10 of the team’s 14 turnovers, including six of his nine career interceptions.
Still, Jones is aware of the offensive threat Driskel presents.
“He has great confidence and he has weapons and playmakers around him,” Jones said. “He can hurt you with his legs and his arm. WE have to do a great job of applying pressure in our aiming points on the quarterback because they do a great job of false reads.”
Two Florida graduating classes of players have not lost to Tennessee and the Gators want to keep that string alive.
“Just seeing the embarrassment on their behalf and the enjoyment on our behalf is a good thing,” Gators sophomore defensive end Jon Bullard told the Palm Beach paper. “I’d like to keep it going forever.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)