GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 11 Tennessee started the week with a players-only meeting. Topics ranged from Florida to…
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 11 Tennessee started the week with a players-only meeting. Topics ranged from Florida to hunting in Austin Peay.
Another issue that should have been mentioned: finding a way to end a decades-long slide in the swamp Saturday night.
The Volunteers (2-0) seemingly have their best chance to beat rebuilding Florida (1-1) in Gainesville for the first time since 2003 and end a losing streak that began with Phillip Fulmer and runs expands on the Tennessee coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin, Derek. Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and Josh Heupel.
“At the end of the day, in this game, yesterday has nothing to do with today,” Heupel said. “The previous play has nothing to do with what happens on the next play. It’s about preparing the right way and training the right way. This will lead you to play the right way.
The Vols have lost nine in a row at Florida Field, including two heartbreaks (2015 and 2017) in which the Gators scored on 63-yard passes in the final minutes. Will Grier to Antonio Callaway and Feleipe Franks to Tyree Cleveland will always be a part of the show’s history.
Tennessee, however, would like to flip the script. The Vols won 38-33 in Knoxville last year, with the Gators scoring twice in the final 5 minutes to make the game seem closer than it really was. Now, Tennessee can win back-to-back games in the rivalry for the first time since the 2003-04 seasons.
Heupel’s team is a 6 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“In the SEC, everywhere you go, you’re going to play real big boy football, so they’re not a team we take lightly,” Vols defensive back Warren Burrell said.
The Gators and Vols have looked vulnerable at times this season.
Florida managed a measly 13 rushing yards in a 24-11 loss to then-No. 14 Utah to open the season and scored fewer points (49) against lower-division McNeese than Tarleton State (52) the week before.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulder right now,” Gators running back Trevor Etienne said. “We must now dominate in all aspects of our game.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, played well against Virginia in Week 1, but was trailing 6-3 by lower-division Austin Peay late in the second quarter last Saturday and trailing by 10 points in the fourth before scoring again to seal the victory.
The Vols may not be able to afford another slow start in Gainesville. So the team leaders brought everyone together to clarify things.
“Honestly, it was a great game for us,” senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas said. “It allowed everyone to see that we are still on the same page.”
Florida spent much of the week trying to prepare for Tennessee’s fast-paced offense led by quarterback Joe Milton. The Gators need to find ways to slow down the Vols’ offense and be able to substitute on defense.
“There’s a skill to it,” said coach Billy Napier, who is 0-4 in Florida rivalry games. “We don’t just show up this week and think about it. We’ve been working on how we’re going to do this. Coaches, we all exchange ideas on how we do this, how we practice (this).
MILTON VERSUS MERTZ 2.0
Milton and Florida quarterback Graham Mertz have faced off once before – in the Big Ten. Milton was Michigan’s starter in 2020 when the Wolverines hosted Wisconsin, where Mertz was the starter. Mertz and Wisconsin won 49-11 at the Big House in front of just a few hundred fans.
“Filming, 2020, COVID, Big House, empty,” Mertz said. “It was strange.”
Both teams could get their starting center back. Tennessee’s Cooper Mays underwent knee surgery in August and Florida’s Kingsley Eguakun missed the first two games while recovering from a serious ankle sprain.
Mays warmed up before last week’s game, then watched from the sidelines.
“If he plays, we are confident that he will play at the level he wants and we need him too,” Heupel said.
Eguakun has started 26 games at center over the past two seasons, a player Etienne calls “the floor general when it comes to the offensive line.”
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