This year the SEC East seemed to be pretty wide open for everybody except Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Now we can also add South Carolina to that list. So basically the race for the East will come down to Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee. This week we are fortunate enough to see our first matchup between two of those teams, a matchup that may even be called a rivalry by some (we’ll get into that later). Third-year Head Coach Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers will be paying Florida’s new Head Coach Jim McElwain and the Gators a visit down in The Swamp.
I have a very unique perspective on this game, because during every other game throughout the season I will be rooting for both the Volunteers and the Gators. This week is where it gets confusing for me. I lived in East Tennessee, the heart of Vol Nation, for about 15 years of my life. The Volunteers and watching their teams with my dad are the reason that I love sports. But then something tragic happened during my senior year of high school. I found out that the University of Florida would basically pay for my education if I took my talents to Gainesville. So what do you think I did? My dad started calling me his “Gator traitor,” but hey…money talks. I’ve been in Gainesville for five years now and am still as confused as ever because of my overwhelming love for both athletic programs. But at least that means I know a lot more than the average person about both teams and this upcoming showdown in The Swamp.
Enough about me and why I’m particularly well-qualified to write this post. Let’s get to the actual football talk. Last year, the Gators made the trip to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to play and obviously I had to make the trip as well. Leading up to that weekend, I was asked time and time again by my friends who I thought would win. I told them “It depends.” And of course they wanted to know what it depended on, in my little VolGator head. “IF Florida plays Jeff Driskel the entire game, they’ll lose. But if they give Treon Harris a chance, I think they’ll win.” And as ugly as that game was…it came down to just that. The Vols had controlled the game until Coach Muschamp finally let Harris play. Then the Gators ended up with a 10-9 victory in a beautifully checkered Neyland Stadium. Those ten points gave them their tenth victory in a row over the Volunteers.
A LOT has changed since that game, though. My allegiance on game day has not. I will still be wearing BLUE this year. But do I think I will still be on the right side of this “rivalry”? It depends. Yes, I’m allowed to say that about these games. I know too much about both teams to give a straight answer. So what does it depend on this year? For me, it still depends on Florida’s offense. But instead of which QB starts (both Treon Harris and Will Grier have been good enough), it depends on Florida’s offensive line. Honestly, heading into this season, Florida’s offensive line was always my biggest concern. And that’s no different now.
What’s interesting about this game is in the offense vs. defense match-ups for both teams. Tennessee’s offense has been very productive this year while Florida’s defense has been smothering opponents this year. On the other hand, Florida’s offense and more specifically their offensive line has been unimpressive this season while Tennessee’s defense has been almost equally unimpressive. The end result? A) This will be a low-scoring game. Maybe not as low-scoring as last year’s game between these two teams, but it also won’t be like that Ole Miss-Alabama game we probably all watched last weekend. B) Florida’s offensive line is the key to this game. If Florida’s offensive line can hold up better than it did at Kentucky last Saturday, the Gators can put up enough points to beat the Vols. But if the line keeps collapsing and spooking whichever quarterback is playing, Florida will be rushing the ball too much and leaving a lot of potential passing plays on the field.
About those passing plays the Gators would leave on the field…Will Grier has a great arm. No Gator fan will argue against that. But in his start at Kentucky last week, he was quick to try to get yards using his own two feet instead. And that was because of Florida’s weak offensive line. Grier did even manage to put the ball in the end zone on his two feet, stretching out like Superman at the end of his run. The problem with Grier running the ball so much is that in a lot of other cases he probably could’ve gotten off a pass to a receiver. And if the receivers had caught those passes, the Gators probably would’ve gained more yards and put up more points. It actually pains the Volunteer fan in me to say this, but I’m not so sure Tennessee’s defense (or defensive line) is that much better than Kentucky’s. So maybe Florida’s offensive line can get it together and give the Gators a good chance at getting their 11th victory in a row in this “rivalry.” But on the flip side, Florida’s offensive line may not hold up. And the Volunteer offense, led by Josh Dobbs this time, would be able to put more points on the board than the Gators despite a suffocating Gator defense.
There’s only one more thing I feel obligated to talk about here. And that is why I’ve been putting the world “rivalry” in quotation marks. Considering I was basically raised as a Volunteer fan, this game was always seen as our biggest rivalry game every season. Vol fans proudly call themselves “Gator haters” just like my dad began calling me a “Gator traitor.” The mayor as well as pretty much the entire auditorium gasped when I Gator chomped on stage during an academic awards banquet my senior year of high school. But when I came to the University of Florida and saw the flip side of this “rivalry,” I was a little disappointed. The truth is, there are at least two bigger rivalry games every year for Gator fans. Obviously most college football fans know of our bitter rivalry with the Florida State Seminoles. I’m also pretty sure Marco Rubio managed to put that one on display for the entire country, football fans or not. But there’s one other game that always overshadows our face-off with the Volunteers, the Florida-Georgia game. Maybe it’s because it’s the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (so much fun) or maybe because the Georgia Bulldogs have been stiffer opposition in recent history. Whatever the reason, the rivalry just isn’t the same coming from the Florida side. It’s up to Tennessee to get Gator fans to give this rivalry a little more respect now.
That all being said, this rivalry will always have a special place in my heart. But even with my “It depends,” answer for who wins this game, I know The Swamp will act as a 12th man for the Gators. It may not have saved the day for the Vols when they had that advantage over them last year, but I think it tips the scales slightly in favor of the Gators this time around. My true answer still remains…at the end of the day, the winner of this game really does depend on Florida’s offensive line. Whoever ultimately gets that win will be off to a good start in the race for the SEC East title. Luckily for me, this is the one weekend of the year during which I’m guaranteed a win by at least one of my teams! And let’s be honest, that has hardly ever been a guarantee for me in my recent years as a VolGator fan.