The gesture represents rivalry. It represents the passion of college football fans. It represents the (usually) faux hatred. The excitement. The adrenaline rush brought on by few events outside watching your team emerge from the tunnel and crack helmets with its nemesis.
But for Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner, the gesture — a Tennessee fan leaving a creamsicle-and-white Tennessee flag perched atop Steve Spurrier’s Heisman statue outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium earlier this week — represents something else.
“I don’t know about other guys,” he said, “but to me it’s a sign of disrespect.”
He said regardless of rivalry, defacing anything — even with an easily removable flag — is unacceptable. But the very fact that anyone would bother to do it emphasizes the intensity of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry, which will be renewed on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 in Gainesville with UF hoping to rebound from its deflating collapse against UT a season ago.
That loss last season was Florida’s first against the Volunteers in 11 years. Led by backup quarterback Austin Appleby, the Gators built a 21-0 lead but got demolished in the second half, falling to UT 38-28 in Knoxville. This year, both teams look very different.
The Volunteers lost their starting quarterback, Joshua Dobbs, to the NFL. They also lost leading rushers Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara as well as first-round NFL Draft pick defensive end Derek Barnett, among others.
UF, meanwhile, has two of its biggest playmakers — starting running back Jordan Scarlett and starting wideout Antonio Callaway — sidelined becauise of suspensions. It also lost a wealth of talent on defense, including linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive tackle Caleb Brantley and cornerback Quincy Wilson.
Breaking in new players has been easier for the No. 23 Volunteers than it has been for the No. 24 Gators. The Volunteers are 2-0 after winning an overtime thriller against Georgia Tech in Week 1 and stampeding Indiana State in Week 2. The Gators are 0-1 after being thrashed by Michigan and missing out on a tune-up game against Northern Colorado because or Hurricane Irma.
With one loss already staining their record, Florida’s players know how important this game is.
Plus, it’s Tennessee — a rival and UF’s first Southeastern Conference opponent. Defensive tackle Khairi Clark called it “critical.” Gardner called it “a big game.” And receiver Josh Hammond said it’s “huge.”
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Hammond said, referencing last season’s collapse. “We just have to be ready to play all four quarters and never let up.”
Coach Jim McElwain said the key to winning the four-quarter battle will be winning one-on-one matchups, which Florida failed to do last year.
This is especially true in the secondary, where UF’s young corners will be tested by a Tennessee team that like to throw deep.
The Volunteers currently average 228 yards per game through the air, which places them fourth in the SEC.
“They will test that young secondary,” McElwain said, “and that young secondary is going to be ready to go.”
Another area that could be tested is UF’s linebackers. The Gators will be without Kylan Johnson, who made four tackles — second-most among Florida’s linebackers — against Michigan. He’s out with a lingering hamstring injury, and the Gators don’t have much depth to take his place.
Thanks to suspensions of true freshmen Ventrell Miller and James Houston, the team has its three starters — David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Jeremiah Moon — but not much else. Walk-on Cristian Garcia and Miami Norland alum Rayshad Jackson are the likely go-to options, but expect the starting three to be on the field as much as possible.
Reese said the entire defense has been made aware that over the past two seasons it has missed 78 tackles against the Volunteers. Gardner confirmed that emphasis, adding that they’ve just been going for too many “kill shots.”
In the overall scheme of the game, however, going for that kill is exactly what UF is trying to do. With multiple players calling last year’s effort complacent, the goal is clear.
“Last year, they didn’t quit on the game when we were up 21-0 at halftime,” cornerback Duke Dawson said. “So we’ve just gotta make sure we don’t let off the gas this year and finish the game.”
Saturday: No. 23 Tennessee
@ No. 24 Florida
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 4 1/2.
Records: Florida 0-1 (0-0 SEC); Tennessee 2-0 (0-0 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 26-20.
Florida injuries: Questionable — DB C.J. McWilliams (hamstring); DB Quincy Lenton (hamstring). Out — LB Kylan Johnson (leg); WR James Robinson (heart); QB Kyle Trask (foot); DB Marcell Harris (achilles).
Tennessee injuries: Questionable — DB Evan Berry (undisclosed); DB Justin Martin (stinger). Out — DL Austin Smith (knee); DB Baylen Buchanan (ankle); TE Eli Wolf (ankle); WR Jauan Jennings (wrist); LB Darrin Kirkland, Jr. (knee); OL Chance Hall (knee).