That which is always so highly anticipated has a different feel to it this year, as the Vols come into the showdown game with the Gators having already lost once. This marks only the second time Tennessee has lost in the September pre-Florida games (excluding 2001 when the game was moved to December post-9/11), the only other being the 1994 season opening loss to UCLA when Jerry Colquitt got hurt. The Gators have also only lost twice before playing the Vols, to Miami in 2002 and 2003.
The phrase that's being thrown around is "beating Florida will make it all better", and that's absolutely correct. If the Vols win Saturday afternoon, by one or one hundred, the average fan's outlook on 2007 will return to its optimistic roots, like the Cal game never even happened for many. However, if the Vols lose, the Cal loss becomes magnified because now you're 1-2. And even though the cold reality of the SEC is that the Vols could lose to Florida, beat Arkansas State, and then take an off week and enter the Georgia game on October 6 and 2-2, 0-1 in the SEC, they could leave October 6 ahead of Florida in the standings if the Gators were to fall to Auburn and LSU - and wow, aren't we getting ahead of ourselves, because the "who will Florida lose to?" talk is reserved for next week if things go south this one - but it'll be very hard for Vol fans to see the big picture, or that Tennessee would still be alive in the SEC East race, if the Vols lose to the Gators.
So yeah, it's important.
The interesting points of this year's contest, as I see them:
The Legacy of Erik Ainge
Let's play word association. If I say Peyton Manning, you'll tell me about the greatest player to ever wear the orange and white. If I say Heath Shuler, you'll tell me about the athleticism and raw talent. If I say Tony Robinson, you'll shake your head at what was in college what might've been in the pros (or at least your parents will).
Now, if I say Tee Martin, you'll instantly start telling me about the National Championship. If I say Andy Kelly, you'll tell me about back-to-back SEC Championships and an ability to win games. If I say Casey Clausen, you'll say something negative, and then I'll punch you in the face and tell you what a winner that kid was, how he made things happen, found a way to win (14-1 on the road, 2-0 in The Swamp), and is the most underrated and underappreciated Vol of my lifetime.
The first three, at a quick pass, are remembered for their incredible talent first and foremost. These are the guys, when Manning wins another Super Bowl or Shuler makes his way to Washington, you'll tell your kids that you saw play, and how incredible they were. The second three aren't remembered for their talent - which is true to the degree that none ever played well in the NFL - but they're even deeper in the Vol memory bank, you just don't realize it. You won't tell your kids you watched Andy Kelly play, but you will tell them about The Miracle at South Bend and the 4th quarter of the Sugar Bowl against Virginia. You won't tell your kids you watched Tee Martin, you'll tell them about the National Championship. And you won't tell your kids you saw Casey Clausen, but you will tell them about the night the Vols drained The Swamp in 2001. And those three guys were absolutely critical to all of those wins and championships - without them, they do not happen.
So Mike Keith comes on SportsTalk a couple weeks ago, and a caller asks if the Titans would look at Erik Ainge as a possible backup for Vince Young in next year's draft. And Keith responds by saying that he won't make it that far - somebody's going to draft Erik Ainge to be a starter. That Ainge reminded him of Phillip Rivers - no matter how successful or unsuccessful the college career ultimately ends up being, that's a guy from a good system with all the right physical tools, who could show up at the combine and go from being a first day pick to a first round pick. Where Andy Kelly and Casey Clausen didn't have the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, Erik Ainge does. That 6'5", 230 lbs laser-rocket arm thing? Ainge has that.
Ainge also has - to this point, and it's important to understand that his legacy won't be defined in total on Saturday, win or lose - but he's removed himself from 2005, with great distance inbetween. The vision of Ainge spinning round in Baton Rouge, and Ainge throwing strikes to unheralded wide receivers are two very different pictures, and right now it's the latter that'll be burned into your memory when he leaves.
So even if Tennessee finishes 2007 at 7-5, if Ainge goes to the NFL and then has some success there, he'll be remembered fondly and remembered well. Especially at the quarterback position, NFL success - which, for Tennessee, begins and ends with Peyton - bleeds through to the college fanbase. There are and have been a plethora of UT running backs and defensive players who've enjoyed success on Sundays. But you didn't really feel all the more good about things when Jamal Lewis won a Super Bowl, or when Cedrick Wilson got his. At quarterback, you're the face. Right now, Ainge is going to be remembered on talent, like Heath Shuler. And he may never play a meaningful down in the NFL.
But if Ainge can lead the Vols to victory on Saturday, and turn in an SEC Eastern Division title, he'll have a chance to be remembered deeper in the hearts of Vol faithful. I remember lots of great and wonderful things about Peyton, but none of them with the intensity that I can remember every single game from 1998. If I was older, I'd wager I'd say the same thing about Andy Kelly from 1989-90. Erik Ainge has a chance to write the legacy that Nebraska and Charles Woodson denied Peyton Manning (and it's unfair, but it's true - you remember Nebraska killing us and Woodson robbing us with greater intensity than you remember the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, don't tell me otherwise, and that plus Florida taints Manning's image in Knoxville as a winner, even though he, of course, unquestionably was one).
Erik Ainge has a chance to be an NFL quarterback who turned in a memorable championship performance on a team that you remember and treasure. The Vols teams that are truly treasured by this generation of fans are 1985, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1998. And what's happened is a progression, then a regression. Fans remember the 1990 season - where the Vols were 9-2-2 - more fondly than the 1989 season, where the Vols were 11-1 - because the 90 season ended in the Sugar Bowl. The 1995 season was the next step up the ladder, becase we finally beat Alabama and finished #2 in the nation in one poll. And of course, there's 1998. So years like 2001 get the shaft because they didn't end well (LSU), but also because there's a sense of dissatisfaction with things like a trip to Atlanta or the Capital One Bowl, because that was old news at the time. And the legacies of Clausen and Manning aren't remembered by 2001 and 1995, because they were both sophomores at the time and had two more years of memories to build. Andy Kelly is the man because he went out on top. And so now, not only does Ainge have a possible real NFL future in front of him...he's got a chance to go out on top, and be the "winner" in the eyes of the nation that Manning "never was" in college.
But to keep that chance, the Vols have to win on Saturday. And to do that, leaning heavily on Ainge may not be the best idea.
David Cutcliffe vs. Florida
This next statement isn't going to make you feel very good about tomorrow, but just stay with me here:
As the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, David Cutcliffe is 1-6 against Florida.
Now, why is that?
You may not remember this, and it's probably better if you don't, but the old philosophy for beating Florida was to outscore them. When you had Shuler and Manning, you tried to play to your supposed strengths, and so the Vols came out firing. And here's how that turned out under David Cutcliffe:
Cutcliffe Tennessee Offenses vs. Florida
1993: Florida 41 - Tennessee 34
1994: Florida 31 - Tennessee 0
1995: Florida 62 - Tennessee 37
1996: Florida 35 - Tennessee 29
1997: Florida 33 - Tennessee 20
1998: Tennessee 20 - Florida 17 (OT)
2006: Florida 21 - Tennessee 20
Let's throw 1994 out, when Todd Helton started at quarterback and the Gators were ranked #1. With some of the best offenses in school history, the Vols came out with their best punches and tried to knock Florida out. Problem was, Florida always took those punches, and then they hit back. Heath Shuler threw five touchdowns against Florida in 1993, and lost. The second-highest passing total in Tennessee history is 492 yards. Manning did that against Florida in 1996, and lost. In 96 and 97, Manning threw the ball 116 times, and lost twice.
The Vols won in 1998, in part, because they couldn't do the shootout option. Tee Martin couldn't run that offense yet, and so they had to control the ball and the clock. And they got a big play from Shawn Bryson, tough day at the office yards from Jamal Lewis, and kept Florida off the field as much as possible. If that team had tried to outscore Florida, we would've been murdered. And it ended up making all the difference. The problem this year is that the Vols feel like they can outscore Florida with Ainge and efficient receivers, and it's going to be tempting to try. But don't be fooled.
Now, you can look at the FireRonZook.com years, which we all enjoyed, and find some differences. But when Florida wielded a high-powered offense, as they did under Spurrier and as they (apparently) do this year, getting into a shootout hasn't worked. Ever. Didn't work at Cal too well either.
So, what's the solution here?
Run. The. Football.
You've heard the stat about the team that runs the football wins this game, and it's one of the more true statistics I know of with Tennessee Football. As stated, Cutcliffe never tried to run or run-first, and the Vols basically handed Florida the rushing advantage 93-97. The only real time that a team in this series ran the ball better and lost was 2000, where an AJ Suggs Tennessee team that had absolutely no business playing with Florida came within moments of beating them, when Travis Henry ran for 175 and the Vols lost by Jabar Gaffney's fingertips 27-23.
What you saw in 1998 repeated itself last year. On the one, the Vols dominated the Gators, forced them into negative rushing yards, and it didn't matter about the rest, that was enough to win. That turned into a National Championship for Tennessee. In 2006, the Gators forced Tennessee to negative rushing yards, and it didn't matter about Meachem, Swain, Smith and the rest, that was enough to win, and it turned into a National Championship for Florida.
This is an interesting moment to be Arian Foster. Here's a kid with obvious talent, whose very best moments went largely unseen in the second half of the disastrous 2005 season, and whose worst moments led to Penn State winning the Outback Bowl. He's looked very good in the first two games. But Florida is where you get remembered. Your whole career can make you good, as it has been for many Vol running backs. But Florida can make you famous.
And we've been here before. In 2003 and 2004, Cedric Houston had strong starts, and looked really good coming into the Florida game. And in both cases, I thought he was getting ready to bust out. And in both cases, for different reasons, he didn't. So now here's Foster, with a wealth of talent behind him much like Houston, who is currently the first (if not the feature) back on an offense that desperately needs to shy away from the pass and focus on running the football right down Florida's throat. Foster can lead the way, if the offense will let him.
There is absolutely no reason for Tennessee to lose the rushing battle in this game. Tennessee has at least three guys on their depth chart who would start for Florida at RB right now. And even if Florida goes for their yards via the spread option, if Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty, and LaMarcus Coker (plus Lennon Creer if he sees the field again) get outrushed by a bunch of wide receivers, a big white quarterback and a lot of trickery, there will be no excuses. The running battle is ours to win.
Avoid the shootout at all costs - remember, even in 2001 when the final score was 34-32, the Vols weren't trying to get in a shootout. It's just that Florida couldn't tackle Travis Stephens, and instead of that offense being ball control like the first drive of the game, it turned into highlight reel...and it kept Rex Grossman's offense in the game until the very end. Randy Sanders has coached Florida better than David Cutcliffe has. That needs to change. The Vols have the horses to execute a ball control, keep-away, smashmouth gameplan. And the Vols also have a quarterback who'll make it mighty tempting to do otherwise. But I don't know how to make it any more obvious, or use any more stats that back it up - run. Run. Run the football, win the game.
Which, in doing so, would answer another important question:
Just how good is Tennessee's offensive line?
Erik Ainge has been sacked once. The holes have been big enough for talented Vol backs to take advantage of them. So far, so very good.
When you looked at this line coming into the season, you were unsure at best, and you didn't see it being one of the great, dominant Vol offensive lines of recent memory. Losing Arron Sears was a big part of that blow, and not having that name guy like Sears or Michael Munoz for the first time this decade made it seem like the cupboard was bare. And while Cal and Southern Miss aren't the two best defenses in the world, neither is Florida based on what we've seen so far and the depth chart.
Josh McNeil, Anthony Parker, Ramon Foster, Eric Young and Steven Jones have gotten the job done thus far, as well as solid play from the second unit. And the Vols, on paper, won't face a really great defense until they play South Carolina, which is miles down the road. The questions surrounding Florida's defense are great. So not only does this line have a chance to be adequate, they have a chance to be a huge x-factor if they can come through.
There have been Tennessee lines in the past that have absolutely dominated Florida - they did it consecutively in 2000 and 2001. And there have been times when the line, and not shoddy lines, but really good Tennessee o-lines got absolutely dominated out of nowhere - remember Alex Brown? - or when you saw it coming like last year.
But the type of x-factor I'm talking about is this: in the 2004 Florida game, down 7-0, with Brent Schaeffer playing quarterback, the Vols ran the ball with Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs on seven consecutive plays. No long runs, no highlight reels, just good old fashioned "here it comes" football. They got a first down every other play, then they scored a touchdown. One of those drives where you're sitting up in the stands and somebody goes "Man, great time for play action" and you go "No. Run it again. Run it again."
Can this offensive line come out and hit Florida's defense in the mouth on Saturday afternoon? Can Erik Ainge continue to stay clean? This part is absolutely critical to any Tennessee victory scenario.
Tennessee Defensive Questions
Let's start with what you're comfortable with. Short list, eh?
I still believe Jonathan Hefney's worst day is behind him, and Eric Berry's best days are still in front of him. The corners haven't been bad all year, and this sounds cold, but you take the "Andre Caldwell for Antonio Gaines" trade every time. Jerod Mayo and Rico McCoy are very talented and seem to be improving. It's still a John Chavis defense, so you have faith (or you should). And the Vols have seen these athletes and this offense, to a degree, already this year.
The absolute worst feeling in the world as a Tennessee fan is a Florida quarterback with time. If you're old enough, you probably still have nightmares about Danny Wuerfful standing in the pocket and picking our poison. Chris Leak, with time, was highly effective. So if tomorrow afternoon, you see either Tim Tebow standing around looking for targets, or Tim Tebow tucking and running...that's very bad. And after two weeks of football, there's not a whole lot I can say to make you really believe that you won't see some of both.
Does this defense have what it takes to turn into a game-changer tomorrow afternoon against a scoring machine offense? Or will it be enough to ask for just not getting us beat? The best and most realistic scenario I can see for Tennessee victory includes the aforementioned running and ball control, and a defense that is going to bend, but doesn't break enough to get us outscored. I'd love to be underestimating this defense, and who knows, maybe I am. We'll certainly find out. The players and the talent are there, the execution needs to follow.
Florida Defensive Questions
But at least we're not alone.
Now, you've got Derrick Harvey, who'll be trying to do his best Alex Brown. And the rest of the defense is fast and raw, but right now that's all you can say about them. You may be saying more after Saturday that none of us know about yet, and that's half the point, but right now the Vols can exploit these guys, both running and passing. Right now, Tennessee's defense is no worse than Florida's, and everyone needs to remember that. Could go out the window in five minutes on Saturday, but right now that's a true statement. And while that statement about talent and players being there for Florida as well is true, the experience is not. And the Vols need to take advantage.
So when you have two offenses capable of exploiting both defenses, this is where you lay on that "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win" things. That means 3rd and short, and touchdowns not field goals, and especially special teams become even more critical for both teams. Can anybody kick deep for the Vols, and when they don't can anybody cover Florida's speed? Can Denarius Moore, Dennis Rogan or whomever be a weapon returning kicks? What about Britton Colquitt? And can Daniel Lincoln continue to be $$$? Special teams, more than anything else, got us beat in The Swamp in 2005. This time around, let's try not to put the special in...well, you get the idea.
The Tim Tebow Factor
Among my friends and Knoxville Vol fans there seems to be a lot of "Tebow's never been in a big game, Tebow will lose it for them down the stretch." And while I'd be overjoyed if that happened, I don't see the logic. And I'm sure that's a line that gets used a lot with this blog, but still. Not only has Tebow played in big games, he's been THE guy on big plays - 4th down against Tennesee in Neyland, jump pass against LSU, nail in the coffin against Ohio State. The kid has a ring from a game he scored a meaningful touchdown in, so I doubt he'll be rattled. Now, if he gets the ball with 2:00 to play and 80 yards and 4 points down in front of him, we'll see, but my hunch is he'd thrive on that.
What you'll really see here is the true merits of a true spread option against a good team. You can't call Tennessee a good defense right now, but we'll see. However, the Vols still certainly qualify as a good team. Remember, last year Florida's offense averaged only 22 points per game in their SEC regular season games. Now that they're running the spread option instead of just the spread, will it make a significant difference? I can see how some are picking Florida to score 40 on Saturday, but I'm not sure that's the most realistic outcome because you just don't know for sure about it yet. Against Meyer, the Vols have given up 16 and 21 points, and lost twice. But without the great defense, if Florida gets either of those two numbers tomorrow, you have to love our chances...
But that's not to say that Tebow can't control the game in his own right, the same way the Vols can/should try to do with their running game. Somebody wrote in the off-season that Tebow was a better Heisman candidate than quarterback, but Saturday he'll have a chance to marry the two. And really, we just don't know what he'll do with the entire offense at his disposal. But we're gonna find out...and it could be very good for the Gators. If Tebow turns in one of those self-destructive old school visor-throwing performances, I'd be stunned - the odds of him becoming a campus legend are much greater than the odds of him "losing the game".
Phillip Fulmer and Urban Meyer
Say something bad about Meyer, I dare you. I'll wait.
Won the National Championship in his second year, pulling off that second year magic like everyone said. Fun stat for Saturday: Meyer is undefeated in The Swamp. And yeah, the man can recruit. He's not even fun to hate.
Here's the thing about stats: like history, they're dictated by the winners. In Knoxville, you and I still believe that we own Alabama, because we've won 10 of 12. In Tuscaloosa, if the Tide and Nick Saban beat Tennessee this year, then those stats will become "split the last six, Nick Saban is 3-1 against Phillip Fulmer and 1-0 at Alabama" even though 10 of 13 will still be impressive in Knoxville.
So, if Florida wins, here's the stat you'll hear: Phillip Fulmer was 2-1 against Ron Zook, but 3-7 against Steve Spurrier and 0-3 against Urban Meyer at Florida. The Gators have won 11 of 15 (and in Knoxville, we'll say "but it's only 4-3 over the last seven!").
Then they'll say that Fulmer can't deal with the new breed of SEC coaches - that Mark Richt, Nick Saban, and Urban Meyer are the new school and Fulmer can't hang with them. And that'll become a very real issue as the season wears on, you watch.
But for now, we're still dealing with just Florida. Thank God.
So, all that to say this...
Erik Ainge can lead this team to victory, but the Vols would be better off not leaning on him. Tennessee can control the clock and the game if they can run efficiently, which they should be able to do. We didn't even talk about the wide receivers, because they're not good enough (yet) to be difference makers, but they're not bad enough (so far) to be liabilities. The offensive line can dominate.
The defense has to step up. If we're reading Sunday morning about how we were gashed and gave up 500 yards of total offense, it's going to be a long year. Florida is going to score points...but I also do not believe that it has to be 35+ points. Everyone's picking a score in the 30s...but I don't see that. I think there will be enough mistakes on both sides to keep this thing in the under. If asked to win the game in the 4th quarter, can the defense pull it off? Which defense is going to show up? Which quarterback is going to play better?
And let's understand something too: Tennessee could win this game by three touchdowns. I'm not saying they will by any means. But let's not all buy into this "we're screwed" mentality at the cost of seeing how good our offense could be, how big the holes and light the experience on the other side of the ball for Florida, and simply knowing that we're fully capable of going down there and getting the W.
And sure, Florida could win this thing by three touchdowns too. That's the beauty of this rivalry, and why you'll probably, once again, be sweating and shaking profusely in the 4th quarter.
I think Tennessee controls the game. I think Ainge makes the smart plays and decisions at critical times to get points. I think the defense plays better than they did at Cal. I think Florida gets their points and trades blows with the Vols. But I think the experience of Tennessee on both sides and the strength up front on the offensive line make all the difference. Absolutely, this game could go either way. But the Vols have the experience where Florida has none on defense to play for and make the breaks, and when one comes our way score. Tennessee can win. But screw that. Tennessee should win.
Will's Pick: Tennessee 27 - Florida 24