GAINESVILLE Last November, in the waning days of the Will Muschamp era, the Florida Gators heedlessly aimed to “take back The Swamp.”
It didn’t happen.
Instead, Steve Spurrier — the man who nicknamed the stadium — and his South Carolina Gamecocks proved that the once feared and raucous venue was no longer a house of horrors.
But coach Jim McElwain wants a do-over, revising the slogan to “restore the order,” as Florida aims to reclaim the stadium’s storied magic with a signature win over rival Tennessee.
“We’re really looking forward to having our fans come out and make this one of the most feared places to play,” McElwain said. “It’s really interesting. You put yourself in position by winning ballgames to play in bigger ballgames. And yet, this is the biggest game of the season because it’s the next game.”
The Florida-Tennessee showdown hasn’t been a “big game” in years, as the rivalry has lost its luster with both teams becoming conference also-rans.
The Volunteers are three years into their rebuilding project, and the Gators are just three games into the McElwain era.
Still, Saturday is critical for both programs, as both teams seek the chance to return to national relevancy.
“I think it starts [Saturday],” said Tim Tebow, UF’s quarterback from 2006-09 and a SEC Network analyst. “It would be a big win [for Florida]. And guess what, next week it’s an even bigger game if you win [vs. No. 3 Ole Miss].
“It’s crazy, but when you win the games get even bigger, and then when you get a chance to be in those big games and you win, then guess what? Everybody around the country is talking about you. Then it’s, ‘The Swamp is what it was. The excitement is what it was.’ The recruits … it changes.”
But lately, any wins — big or not — have been tough to come by, even at home.
After Spurrier was 68-5 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — coining the phrase, “Only Gators get out alive” — Muschamp lost eight games in The Swamp, including six the past two seasons.
“We’re getting The Swamp back. We’re coming with a whole different attitude this year,” junior wideout Ahmad Fulwood said. “We feel like The Swamp is ours. and no one is going to come and beat us on our home field. We’re there to protect The Swamp.”
Meanwhile, the Volunteers (2-1) are seeking their own signature moment.
Tennessee looks to end a decade of futility against the Gators, aiming to snap a record 10-game series-losing streak and cement its status as a contender.
You want people to fear coming into The Swamp.
The Vols enter the matchup with their most talented squad in years, led by athletic quarterback Josh Dobbs, a litany of playmakers (tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, wideout Josh Malone) and a stout front seven.
“They’re fun to watch,” McElwain said. “I got a lot of respect for what they’re doing and, obviously, they hype going into the season, this is a team that I know feels they let one slip away against Oklahoma. … They’re a very good football team.”
During Florida’s decade of dominance, the Gators have controlled the series’ turnover battle (plus-14 during the winning streak) and rushing edge (they have outrushed the Vols every game over the past decade).
But they might have forfeited their most precious advantage — the psychological element — following a pair of midweek distractions.
The suspensions of sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, a Miami native, and starting cornerback Jalen Tabor are self-inflicted blunders, and Florida could actually enter the game the more fragile team.
“We’ve figured out how to win a couple ballgames, and we’ll just kind of continue to slug along and try to get some more, I guess,” said McElwain, who’s team now has depth issues at quarterback and in the secondary, in addition to problems already on the offensive line and on special teams.
UF is 2-0 at home this season, but a win over a rival on the rise would be big.
“They have to make The Swamp a place that’s intimidating [again],” Tebow said. “You want people to fear coming into The Swamp.”
Saturday: Tennessee at Florida
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, Gainesville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Tennessee by 1 1/2.
Records: Florida 3-0 (1-0 SEC); Tennessee 2-1 (0-0 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 25-19.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR Chris Thompson (back); OL Jordan Sherit (foot); TE C’yontai Lewis (hand); QB Josh Grady (leg); WR Raphael Andrades (leg). Doubtful — DB Kylan Johnson (leg); LB Matt Rolin (back); LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); LB Jeremi Powell (foot). Out — RB Case Harrison (thumb).
Tennessee injuries: Questionable — RB Ralph Abernathy IV (ankle). Out — DB Max Arnold (knee); LB Curt Maggitt (ankle); DL Andrew Butcher (knee); WR Vincent Perry (knee); WR Jason Croom (knee); OL Austin Sanders (bicep); DB Rashaan Gaulden (foot); OL Marcus Jackson (arm).