Florida-Tennessee to have old-school feel on Saturday
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Over the years there have been many classic games in the Florida-Tennessee rivalry.
Many of them took place in the 1990s, when the winner of the Florida-Tennessee game not only moved into the driver's seat for the SEC East title but also became a front-runner to win the national title.
The schools meet for the 43rd time on Saturday when the Gators host the Vols at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
While the rivalry has been dominated by Florida in recent years, Saturday's matchup at The Swamp will have an old-school feel.
The reason is a guy named Danny Wuerffel.
One of the rivalry's great games -- at least for Florida fans -- happened 17 years ago to the day from Saturday. Wuerffel and Florida's defense were the stars.
In the first meeting between the schools when both were ranked in the top five, the No. 4-ranked Gators traveled to Knoxville to face the No. 2 Vols on Sept. 21, 1996. In front of more than 107,000 fans at Neyland Stadium Wuerffel threw four touchdown passes and the Florida defense forced six turnovers in a 35-29 win.
The Gators raced to a 35-0 lead in the second quarter and then held on as Peyton Manning engineered a Tennessee comeback that fell short. Florida coach Steve Spurrier offered one of his gems afterward.
"We didn't want you to accuse us of running up the score,'' Spurrier told reporters.
The victory was the first in school history for the Gators over a team ranked No. 1 or 2 and launched Florida toward the program's first national title.
Now, back to Wuerffel, who thanks to that huge early lead 17 years ago, he threw only 22 times for 155 yards in Florida's memorable road win on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Wuerffel will be back on the field at The Swamp on Saturday. He won't be playing quarterback. Instead, he is taking a turn as Mr. Two Bits.
That is worth a cheer as one of Florida's all-time greats makes his return. Wuerffel is also being honored for his recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Let's take a look at Saturday's matchup with The Opening Kickoff:
--This is the SEC opener for both schools and each is coming off a game they would rather forget. The Gators lost at Miami two weeks ago and are itching to get back on the field. The Vols traveled to No. 2 Oregon last week and got drilled 59-14.
--The Gators have owned this rivalry of late. Florida has won eight consecutive over the Vols, including the last six meetings by an average of 19 points. They will try to make it nine in a row on Saturday with Wuerffel watching. For the record, Wuerffel was 4-0 against the Vols in his career.
--While the Gators have tripped of late away from The Swamp -- all three of Florida's losses since the start of last season have come in NFL stadiums -- they have won eight in a row in front of the home fans.
--Tennessee's defense was shredded for 687 yards in the loss at Oregon. Meanwhile, Florida's offense leads the nation in time of possession, holding on the ball an average of 39:04. How that translates on the field Saturday will be interesting to watch.
--Florida's defense has been dominant in the first two games of the season. The Gators lead the SEC in total defense (208.5 yards per game) and lead the country in third-down defense (limiting opponents to 2-for-24 on third-down conversions). The Gators' biggest challenge Saturday will be going against the Vols' offensive line, which returns four starters and weighs a collective 1,561 pounds.
--Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for a career-high 291 yards in the loss at Miami. However, that was overshadowed by Driskel's two interceptions in the red zone and his fumble that led to the Hurricanes' final score. The Gators are looking for better decisions from Driskel when they drive deep into Tennessee territory.
--First-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones makes his first trip to Florida Field. Jones climbed the coaching ranks under Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly as an assistant and replaces Derek Dooley. Jones is the fourth Tennessee coach since the Vols last beat Florida in 2004.
--Florida's quarterback situation is much more stable than Tennessee's. Jones held off this week on naming a starter and said that junior Justin Worley, who started the first three games, could start, and so could redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman or true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. Stay tuned.
--Senior right guard Jon Halapio returns for the Gators after missing the first two games due to a torn pectoral muscle. Halapio provides the offensive line with a veteran leader and perhaps the unit's strongest run blocker.
--Freshman defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III isn't shy about introductions. Hargreaves has an interception in each of his first two college games, the first UF true freshman to do that in records dating back to 1996. Hargreaves' quick start prompted head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to say this week that Hargreaves is essentially a starter.
"They are definitely going to come out with a different edge because we're a rivalry. They know us. We know them. They are not going halfway across the country to play us. They're coming right down the street. They know what they are getting themselves into." -- Gators linebacker Michael Taylor on facing the Vols
"I think he is much closer to what we need him to be." -- Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease on running back Matt Jones, who made his 2013 debut at Miami after missing time with a viral infection
"You just can’t give up big plays. We can’t afford that to happen. You’ve got to tackle better. Marcus knows that. Jaylen [has] played well at safety for us. He will still play some corner. But he’s a guy that covers well.'' -- Muschamp on decision to move Jaylen Watkins ahead of Marcus Maye at safety
"Just like any position in our program, it's open. Whatever quarterback has the best week of practice will be the starter for Tennessee when we play Florida. If that means a freshman quarterback, that means a freshman quarterback. We'll add more quarterback run in our package. We just need to find ways to generate big explosive plays." -- Jones on the Vols' quarterback battle
--The Vols are 1-23 against Top 25 teams since 2008 and have lost 17 in a row to ranked opponents.
--Gators senior Trey Burton is fourth in the SEC in receptions per game (5.5). Burton had a career-high six receptions at Miami and the Vols remember him for his 80-yard touchdown run that shifted momentum in Florida's 37-20 win at Tennessee last year.
--Loucheiz Purifoy's blocked punt against Miami was the Gators' 13th blocked kick under Muschamp and special teams played a big role in Tennessee's last visit to The Swamp in 2011, a 33-23 Florida victory.
--Tennessee has forced nine turnovers in three games while the Gators have forced only two in their two games. The Gators are minus-4 in turnover margin, a key area of concern for Muschamp.
--Tennessee has lost eight consecutive SEC games on the road, last winning an away conference game in November 2010 at Vanderbilt.
--A pair of Tennessee assistants has close ties to the Gators. Vols receivers coach Zach Azzanni was on Urban Meyer's final staff at Florida in 2010, and former Gators running back Robert Gillespie is in his first season as Tennessee's running backs coach.
--Florida could use another big day from its starting receivers. Quinton Dunbar caught seven passes for 98 yards against Miami and Solomon Patton hauled in a career-high 118 yards receiving, including a 46-yarder from Driskel.
--Muschamp said Gators starting right tackle Tyler Moore is battling an ankle sprain. If Moore is unavailable, look for the versatile Kyle Koehn to move over to tackle. Koehn has filled in at right guard in Halapio's absence.
--The Gators are still looking for more production from their tight ends. The foursome of Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor has only one catch in the first two games.
--Driskel has completed 70.9 percent of his passes (39-for-55) through two games, second in the SEC behind Georgia's Aaron Murray (37-for-52, 71.2 percent).
The Gators' win streak over Tennessee is one they want to keep alive for a myriad of reasons, most notably to start the SEC season off on a good note and flush the Miami loss from their system.
Florida is a heavy favorite and CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who is calling the game with play-by-play man Verne Lundquist, considers the Gators the most underrated elite team in the country.
Florida fans hope Danielson is right.