In spite of everything – coaching changes, 4-8, a 26-point loss to West Virginia, Florida’s loss to Kentucky – this still feels like the Friday morning of Florida week is supposed to feel. The slow burn of anticipation has taken us to the end of the work week and, for the first time since 2012, it will build to the evening hours on Saturday.
The stakes have changed, not just from the 90’s but two years ago, when ducks pulled trucks and you knew the division was on the line. Now those same two teams are fighting for the first step of a rebuild. There are tickets available in the last ten rows of the upper deck, where the Gators would normally reside, though their $105 face value may be keeping some people away. But this is still Friday, still Florida week, and I’d imagine it will feel just right on Saturday night too.
The close proximity of Tennessee and Florida the last few years, both head-to-head and in the overall health of their respective programs, is in some ways progress for the Vols, even though we only beat them once. In the last few years, the sense of dread that comes with an 11-year losing streak shifted: once we feared Florida doing bad things to us, then we feared us doing bad things to ourselves.
But with a new coach and new athletic director (who 26 years ago knew a thing or two about beating Florida on your first try), there’s an opportunity for separation: from the past and, in a first, small step, from the Gators.
The foundation for such a thing was indeed built brick-by-brick. But often in the last four years, the Vols turned into Clark Griswold in critical moments when they faced the Gators.
Tennessee has out-gained Florida four years in a row. In every one of those games, the turnover margin was even. And the Vols won the vaunted rushing battle the last three years.
And yet, the Gators won three of those four and had a 21-0 lead in the other.
What felt like weirdness in the red zone in 2014 and an extraordinary set of bad things happening in 2015 ceased to be coincidence when both of them happened in this game last year. When we suggest the Vols have been better than Florida the last four years head-to-head, the numbers back it up. And a piece from Will Sammon in The Athletic this week pointed out the Vols have recruited slightly better than the Gators from 2015-18 too.
There’s much more to beating Florida than changing the head coach; obviously there’s a new man on the other sideline too. But if there is confidence to be found on either sideline, there are Tennessee players who have to know they should’ve had this team the last few years. And there are still a few guys on this team – Jauan Jennings, Chance Hall, Drew Richmond, and Todd Kelly, Jr., among others – who know what it’s like to play for and make the breaks against this Florida team in victory. And any “we always beat these guys” vibes on the other bench have to be a bit tainted, having already lost to a team they always beat for three decades.
For Jeremy Pruitt, who earned plenty of confidence as a defensive coordinator, one of the most important issues in his first year is getting his team to believe: not just in him, but in themselves. That will be a tougher task in the next few weeks. But tomorrow night – surrounded by champions past, and inspired by the pain and knowledge of what should have been the last four years – the Vols can take a big step forward, in confidence and result.
This is a big one; it always will be. But after years of finding a way to lose, a new coach can inspire confidence by getting his team to play with it.