My next few pieces will be looking, in order, at the top five rivals for the University of Florida football team, and the 2014 outlook against these same teams. These are based off my own opinions, and are sure to elicit some emotion from Gator fans – no matter who you think is the biggest rival. First man up …
No. 5: Tennessee
Go with me here. Yes, this rivalry has lost some luster over the years. Yes, the Gators have won nine consecutive games against the vomit-colored Volunteers. And yes, this is the program that figured it a good idea to hire first Lane Kiffin and then Derek Dooley.
But, this is still Tennessee.
The school that dealt Steve Spurrier his final loss as the head coach of the Gators in the Swamp. The rival for whom Casey Clausen directed “Rocky Top” after wins at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (something I still seethe over to this day). The program that robbed Florida and Dallas Baker of a win at Neyland Stadium in 2003 due to a botched penalty call.
This is quickly becoming a strengthened Volunteers team. After struggling for years at the position, Tennessee has a four-man battle for starting quarterback. Senior Justin Worley leads most estimations as to who will get the nod, and that should concern Gators fans. Not only is Worley talented (though certainly not Heisman caliber), but with downfield threats like Marquez North, Josh Malone, and the incredibly speedy newcomer Von Pearson, he has plenty of weapons to kick the offense into high gear.
Second-year coach Butch Jones has brought an incredible amount of energy, and breathed a much-needed burst of life into the Tennessee program. This year he reeled in a class of 32 players – and that is after four straight losing seasons. He’s also locked down the state of Tennessee in terms of talent, signing eight of the state’s top 10 players for 2014. His recruits come from 12 different states and Washington, DC. He can sell immediate playing time, and the program’s growth – evident in toppling nationally ranked South Carolina last season.
Like it or not, Gator fans, Tennessee is on the rise. I’m not sure if this is the year they storm back into the SEC East mix, but the upswing is fast approaching.
Due to new scheduling, this will be the first time since 1995 that Tennessee will not be the first SEC game of Florida’s season (not counting the 2001 reshuffling due to 9/11), as this year’s game will be played October 4.
Florida will have played Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky at home, traveled to Alabama, and then enjoyed a bye week before traveling to Knoxville.
Tennessee’s schedule has them opening against Utah State (a Pac-12 contender) and Arkansas State at home, then hitting the road to face off against playoff contender Oklahoma, and then enjoying bye before heading to Athens to face Georgia – all before coming home to play Florida. That difficult gauntlet could play to the Gators’ advantage. Either way, this game will be a telltale sign as to how far each program has come this off-season and will definitely be interesting.