GAINESVILLE -- For the fan bases of Florida and Tennessee, the third Saturday in September used to mean something. A win on that Saturday meant the dream was still alive. A win on that Saturday set the stage for a trip to Atlanta in December and a possible Southeastern Conference championship.
“Basically, the third Saturday in September, whoever won that game certainly had a leg up on winning the East,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said.
But for the past seven years, that Saturday has been anything but. The Gators have dominated the series in that time, winning all seven while the Volunteers struggled to regain the level of play with which their fans became accustomed during the days of Peyton Manning and former coach Phillip Fulmer. Tennessee has not been ranked in the rivalry game since 2007, a game dominated by Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin as Florida romped to a 59-20 win.
But with the dynamic trio of quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, some are saying Tennessee is back. Some say that’s hogwash.
Volunteers defensive end Darrington Sentimore had a message for them.
“I think people want to wait and see how we do against Florida,” Sentimore said. “But I’m here to tell them that we’re going to beat them.”
Sentimore’s reasons for confidence? Coming in at No. 23 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, Tennessee is ranked for the first time since 2008. Under Bray, Hunter and Patterson, the offense is ranked second in the SEC and 15th nationally with an average of 541 total yards. The Volunteers lead the conference in passing and are tied with Georgia in scoring.
Tennessee entered last year’s game with a similar confidence but fell behind early and couldn’t catch up after losing Hunter to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Hunter said he was “angry” after the injury and has concentrated on getting back to full health in order to “tear them [the Gators] up” this year.
“We know what we’re going to get, we know what looks they’re going to come out in, and they’re going to come and try to hit us in the mouth,” UF linebacker Lerentee McCray said. “It’s going to be a [rivalry] game. … They feel like they can beat us. They feel like they’re more talented than we are.”
And fifth-year senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said this is the best Tennessee team he has seen on film since arriving at Florida. That’s why the national spotlight is back on this week’s game. ESPN’s College GameDay program is in Knoxville, Tenn., to cover the rivalry for a seventh time, second-most of any matchup, and to see two coaches familiar with each other battle for the potential of early East supremacy.
But instead of the air-it-out battles of the 1990s, this year’s game will have a different feel thanks to Muschamp’s new-look Gators. Their identity is that of a tough, grind-it-out team based on a downhill rushing attack and a stingy defense, and it has come under criticism from some fans accustomed to the past.
“Coming here, there was [Steve] Spurrier before, then you went straight to coach [Urban] Meyer and Tebow and all these high-powered offenses,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said. “There hasn’t been a grind-it-out type of coach here in a while. So, it’s kind of different than what fans are used to, but that’s the way we want it.”
Muschamp does, too. He said he doesn’t care about the perception of winning ugly, especially in statement games like last week’s trip to College Station, Texas, and this Saturday’s game in Knoxville.
“I just want to win,” he said. “Winning is well enough.”