Once a storied and thriving rivalry, the Florida-Tennessee showdown has lost its sizzle.
And yet, Saturday’s noon kickoff against the host Volunteers (2-2, 0-1 SEC) means as much to embattled Gators head coach Will Muschamp as any iconic meeting between former UF and Tennessee coaches Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer.
Florida football is at a crossroads, and though Muschamp calls every game “a must-win,” a victory in Knoxville is truly imperative.
“All our goals are still there, got a lot of football to play and everything’s out in front of us, so let’s go get it,” Muschamp said. “They’re all must-wins. When has it ever changed? I mean really.”
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Muschamp is technically correct, but Florida’s 42-21 defeat two weeks ago at Alabama drew the fury of Gator Nation.
The Gators, 4-8 last season, weren’t expected to beat the Crimson Tide, but the manner of their defeat – gashed for a school-record 672 yards while reverting to offensive ineptitude (200 total yards, three turnovers) – sent a sneering fan base to the brink.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel continues to struggle, and a pair of first-year starters (Kentucky’s Patrick Towles and Alabama’s Blake Sims) torched UF’s inexperienced secondary for 350-plus yards in consecutive weeks.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is fresh off moral victories against No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 13 Georgia. The Gators (2-1, 1-1) have won nine in a row against the Vols, and an SEC East title remains a goal.
Despite not beating a conference foe with a winning record since 2012, the Gators believe they’re good enough to get to Atlanta.
“It’s a critical game because the East is wide open right now,” UF tailback Matt Jones said. “Everybody has a loss. To go in there and beat Tennessee is going to be good.”
But it won’t be easy.
Muschamp’s hot-seat future could be determined by a difficult six-week stretch – No. 15 LSU, No. 24 Missouri, No. 13 Georgia, South Carolina – that starts Saturday with Tennessee.
The Volunteers, under second-year coach Butch Jones, are regarded as a promising and rebuilding program. Tennessee has played the most true freshmen in the country (22) and boasts the nation’s consensus fifth-ranked recruiting class.
Behind senior quarterback Justin Worley and a talented set of playmakers, Tennessee – on its fourth head coach since last beating the Gators – presents some matchup issues for the Gators.
“They play hard on tape,” Muschamp said. “They’ve got some good football players and their staff does a good job. I’ve got a lot of respect for Butch.”
But Muschamp & Co. remain upbeat, aiming for some much-needed momentum before the schedule toughens.
“We’re confident,” the coach said. “We’ve had good prep in the open week and we’ve had good preparation through this week and your preparation builds confidence in what you do. What I’ve tried to do is look at from fall camp up until this point of the positive things that we’ve done.
“It’s obvious a lot of negativity surrounds us here. I think our guys have seen that and understand the type of football team we can have when we put it together, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”