University of Florida

Rebuilding Gators looking to add another chapter in this storied SEC rivalry

In 2004, it was the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that snatched the victory from the fingertips of the Florida Gators.

In 2009, it was the continuous jawing between then-Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin and then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer.

The infamous “nobody has ever seen a duck pull a truck” story line came in 2016 when the Vols came from behind to stun the Gators.

And last year, it was the Feleipe Franks game-winning heave to Tyrie Cleveland in the end zone as the final nine seconds escaped from the game clock.

This Florida-Tennessee rivalry has proven to be one of the most riveting in all of college football.

And Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, will be the site of the 48th showdown between the Southeastern Conference rivals on Saturday night as Florida heads on the road for the first time this season.

These are two teams in program rebuilds. New Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt inherited a team that finished 0-8 in the SEC last season. And Florida head coach Dan Mullen is trying to reshape a program that has been deficient on offense and rife with off-field adversity.

But with the history of SEC rivalry games, it would be a mistake to think that this won’t be a big one. Every conference game is.

“It will be a hostile environment against a team with a new coaching staff, very similar to us,” Mullen said.

The Vols haven’t enjoyed the thrill of an SEC win since November 2016 when they bulldozed the Missouri Tigers 63-37 in Knoxville.

Though the Gators’ conference record in that span isn’t quite as bleak — they have five conference victories since November 2016 — the team is 0-1 in the SEC this season.

“We want to see how our guys handle a different adversity this week,” Mullen said.

The Florida coach knows the importance of generating a good pass rush against Tennessee’s talented receivers, but he especially wants to see his defense do better in third-down situations.

“We were pretty efficient on first and second down, especially on first down,” Mullen said. “But we’ve got to be better on the situational part of the game.”

Despite struggling in their first game of SEC play, Franks is confident in his team’s ability to embrace the test of playing in Neyland’s hostile environment.

“Obviously crowd noise is something we got to work on this week,” Franks said. “Tennessee’s a really good football team. They’re a good football time just like we are. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re up for the challenge, just go out there and play football and have fun.”

Saturday’s road trip will be a homecoming of sorts for first-year Gators receiver Van Jefferson, who went to high school in nearby Brentwood, Tennessee.

He will see plenty of familiar faces lined up across from him come game time.

“Of course, I’m happy to go back to see some of my friends,” Jefferson said. “But other than that, I’m going in there on a mission. ”

Jefferson will hope to score in front of his many friends and family members who will be in attendance. But whether he’ll get the chance against a Vols team that hasn’t surrendered a touchdown in its last two contests remains to be decided

“We just gotta execute,” he said. “If we do that we’ll be fine. We’ll get the result we want.”

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