Gators vs. Vols brings back memories
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Steve Spurrier isn't directing pregame barbs at Phillip Fulmer. Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning aren't throwing any passes.
Yet there's an unmistakable sense of 1990s nostalgia in the air now that national relevance has returned to the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. When No. 23 Tennessee opens Southeastern Conference competition Saturday against No. 18 Florida, it will mark the first time since 2007 that both are ranked at the time of their annual confrontation.
"Tennessee is always going to feel like Tennessee because that's just our rival, our rival team that we love to play," Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "But it's kind of an old-school feel, getting back to it."
When Spurrier coached Florida and Fulmer led Tennessee, this game ranked among the nation's biggest September showdowns. Either Florida or Tennessee represented the Eastern Division in the SEC championship game every year from 1992-2001.
Lately, the rivalry hasn't been nearly as relevant.
Nor has it been much of a rivalry.
Tennessee has posted two consecutive losing seasons. After winning national titles in 2006 and 2008, Florida posted a combined record of 15-11 in 2010 and 2011. Even during its recent struggles, Florida has continued its seven-game winning streak in this series.
Now both teams have cause for optimism.
Florida (2-0, 1-0 SEC) came from behind to win 20-17 at Texas A&M last week. Tennessee (2-0, 0-0) has gained over 500 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since 2000, giving the Vols reason to believe they can finally beat Florida.
"We walk around campus and people just have that look, that Tennessee's back," Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore said.
History suggests Tennessee won't end the Gators' streak unless it does a better job of running the ball.
Tennessee has averaged 1.8 yards per carry over its last seven games with Florida. The Vols haven't outrushed Florida since 2004, the last time they defeated the Gators.
"It's a real focus -- the running game and handling the line of scrimmage in general," Tennessee center James Stone said. "That's their strength, and we have to make it our strength."
Florida's offense features Mike Gillislee, who leads the SEC with 231 yards rushing. Tennessee has a quick-strike attack with Tyler Bray throwing to SEC receptions leader Justin Hunter and all-purpose yardage leader Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter has made a successful return after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Tennessee's 33-23 loss to Florida last September.
The Vols have four scoring drives this season that took 34 or fewer seconds. Florida leads the SEC in time of possession.
Yet both defenses also have reason for hope.
Bray has completed 73.8 percent of his passes for 643 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions, but he entered last year's Florida game with similar statistics. He ended up throwing two interceptions as well as three touchdown passes against the Gators. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson referred to Bray as a "daredevil" this week while noting his tendency to force passes.
Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel was sacked eight times last week. That number has the attention of both teams.
"We definitely noticed (how) Texas A&M pass rushed in the game and how it affected Jeff," Tennessee outside linebacker Jacques Smith said. "They kind of exposed themselves a little bit."
Driskel knows he must do a better job of helping his blockers.
"I've got to get rid of the ball earlier and not lock it onto my first read," Driskel said. "Like I said, live another day if nothing is open and someone is coming at me, and throw the ball away."
Florida must improve its pass protection, but the Gators still have plenty of confidence after winning on the road last week. Tennessee also is feeling good about itself after two double-digit victories. Their fast starts have brought back memories of an era when these programs competed for high stakes every season.
The Vols and Gators were "two of the top five teams in the country in the `90's," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Basically, the third Saturday in September, whoever won that game certainly had a leg up on winning the East."
It's not quite as clear-cut this year.
SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina remain ahead of both teams in the rankings. But the winner of Saturday's game once again should consider itself a real contender for the division title.