Gators, Vols downplaying importance of rivalry

One of them will have to lose.

And when they do, their fans will be exceedingly unhappy about it.  

You see, for all their proclamations of support — all the big smiles and back slaps and “we love you, coach” shouts at booster dinners — Derek Dooley’s Tennessee faithful are losing their patience.

Will Muschamp’s fans in Florida have never had any in the first place.

So when the Gators take the field in Knoxville on Saturday, there will be more on the line than one simple SEC East game. The trajectories of both programs will be judged. And the losing coach can expect to feel a lot more post-game heat than does on any Saturday afternoon.

In reality, it is just one conference game — the loser still has a good shot at winning the East.

Not surprisingly, both coaches are trying to downplay the history and significance of this matchup.  

“We’re looking forward to going to Knoxville to play a Tennessee team that is much improved over last year and so are we,” said Muschamp on Wednesday in a voice that sounded like an airline captain telling you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. “It’s on national TV, so we’re looking forward to kickoff.”

It doesn’t get more innocuous than that.

Nothing about the bitter grudges one fan base carries for the other, nothing about the seven-year win streak Florida is on and what that run has meant in terms of recruiting and reputation.  

To hear the coaches talk this is just another game in a season full of them, a mid-September pastime to wile away the hours between brunch and supper.   

“The last seven games (in this series) have nothing to do with this game,” Dooley said. “And whether we’ve won seven or lost seven, the only thing that matters is how this team focuses day-in and day-out and play-in and play-out, not what’s happened historically.”  

That is probably because history is not on Tennessee’s side. The Vols have only beaten the Gators six times since 1990. The Ron Zook years of 2003 and 2004 are Tennessee’s only back-to-back victories since 1953, the year Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated and Steve Spurrier entered the second grade.  

 “It’s a huge game, that’s for sure,” said Spurrier of the rivalry between the two schools. “But you don’t know how big a game it is until you get later in the year and you start adding up the wins to see where everybody stands. We lost to them in 1992, but they ended up losing a couple of games and we won ours so we won the division. Then those years when they had Peyton (Manning) we beat them but then we lost some games and they played pretty good. So, it’s an important game that gets more important when you look back and add them all up at the end of the year.”   

Unfortunately, neither Dooley nor Muschamp has the luxury of time.

The natives are restless, they want their wins now.  

“The fans are excited and really should be,” Dooley said. “We’ve had a four-year stretch where we haven’t performed to Tennessee standards and now we’re at least getting talked about. But that excitement isn’t going to stay if we don’t play well. That’s what matters most.”   

Winning is what matters most, no matter how either team plays. And as much as Dooley and Muschamp want to downplay the rivalry, fans know better.  

“What’s odd about Tennessee is that we have so many rivals,” Dooley said. “It’s funny when I go around on the Big Orange Caravan, everybody has their team that they want us to beat, whether it’s Georgia or Alabama or Florida or Kentucky or Vanderbilt. I’ve found out that in this league they’re all rivals, their all important and their all big. It’s hard to say one’s bigger than the other.”  

But Dooley can’t get to Georgia or Alabama or Kentucky or Vanderbilt until he beats Florida. This week, the Gators are the rivalry, because they fall first on the list.  

“They’ll all whip your tail if you’re not ready to play,” Dooley said of the SEC teams on his schedule.