SEC East Showdown: Josh Heupel, Billy Napier Need A Win This Weekend In ‘The Swamp’ For Completely Different Reasons

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Here we go again, Tennessee and Florida will square-off Saturday night in Gainesville, with a lot on the line, which is usually the case. This meeting has a different feeling as in year’s past, as both Josh Heupel and Billy Napier are looking for program trajectory wins.

If you aren’t up to speed on the hated rivalry between the Gators and Vols, just head to YouTube and watch some of the insane endings to this matchup in Gainesville. It’s a different story than what we’ve seen in recent history when this game is played in Knoxville, with Tennessee actually finding recent success.

But when it comes to playing in ‘The Swamp’, there’s a reason why Tennessee could be the No.1 ranked team in the country and fans clad in Orange would still be a nervous wreck. Whether it’s Felipe Franks throwing the Hail Mary pass to win at the final second, or Will Grier connecting with Antonio Callaway for a 4th & 17 game-winning touchdown, there’s some type of voodoo curse on the Vols in Florida.

Florida will play Tennessee on Saturday night in 'The Swamp'
Jack Pyburn #44 of the Florida Gators takes the field with Ja’Quavion Fraziars #0 and teammates before the start of a game against the McNeese State Cowboys. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The last time Tennessee beat Florida in Gainesville was 2003. That thanks to QB Casey Clausen, along with a Hail Mary touchdown pass to James Banks before halftime. Ever since Clausen led the Tennessee band during the postgame celebration, the football gods have not been considerate of the Vols playing this game on the road.

But, here we are again, a new season with higher expectations for Tennessee since Josh Heupel took the job. On the other sideline stands Billy Napier, looking to set the course for his Florida football program after a rough first season and the loss to Utah in the Gators first game of 2023.

Now, Josh Heupel Needs To Break This Losing Streak

The Vols are coming off an 11-2 season, already winning its first two games of the 2023. But there are still folks rightfully nervous about the offense. Put aside the fact the Tennessee is favored by 6.5 points, the passing attack led by QB Joe Milton has had a forgettable two weeks. In wins against Virginia and Austin Peay, Milton is 42-63 passing, with four touchdowns, not exactly lighting up the scoreboard.

While you might look at those stats and scratch your head, it should be noted that Josh Heupel has been hesitant to test both teams with the deep ball. But this isn’t all on Joe Milton, with his receivers struggling at times to get open in space, especially this past weekend against an undermanned Austin Peay team.

Head coach Josh Heupel and Joe Milton III #7 of the Tennessee Volunteers celebrate on stage after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the Capital One Orange Bowl. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Put all of that aside, it’s going to take some time for this Tennessee offense to mimic the 2022 roster, led by Hendon Hooker and Jalen Hyatt. Fact is, the Vols are also trying to establish a rushing attack behind Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, while Milton garners enough confidence to beat teams with the downfield passing attack. But now Tennessee has run out of time, with the Gators ready to pin their ears back and force Milton into mistakes, which have been rare, not throwing an interception in 207 attempts in Knoxville.

As for Josh Heupel, he has already slayed one dragon during his short tenure in Knoxville. The dramatic victory over Alabama last season snapped a sixteen year losing streak to the Tide, sending Heupel into folklore territory in his second year. Against Florida, Josh Heupel is trying to prove to folks that last season wasn’t a fluke, with expectations at a new level for the program.

“What happened last year let alone a decade ago, or what happens during the course of the game, the previous play has nothing to do with what’s happening next,” Heupel mentioned this week. “Our guys have kind of taken on that mindset a little bit, certainly they’re aware of that streak,”

A win against Florida in Gainesville would further cement the notion that Tennessee has finally turned the corner. While a loss, especially with a subtle offensive performance will certainly tamper expectations in Knoxville this season. Especially against a Florida team that’s trying to keep its head above water in the SEC under Billy Napier.

If Billy Napier Is Going To Make A Statement, Here’s It Is

Let’s not act like we’ve all been hiding under a rock for the past two years in regards to Florida football. The fan base is questioning whether or not Billy Napier is the guy who can lead the Gators into the future, while the football program tries to meet expectations. Going 5-7 last season was bad enough, but Florida fans won’t put up with that type of record for a consecutive year.

Napier took the job knowing there were a lot of things to fix around Gainesville. But this is still the Florida Gators, a team known for its speed on offense and ability to make life miserable for opposing teams on defense. At least that’s what I remember, with an administration in Gainesville ready to see a return to glory. Was Graham Mertz going to be the savior for Florida this season? Absolutely not, but Napier had to sign a quarterback, even if Mertz was down the list. And yes, the loss to Utah, with their third string quarterback, surely didn’t spark a lot of excitement early in the season.

Beating Tennessee gives the Gators a chance to at least put the train back on the tracks.

In the whole grand scheme of things, Florida just needs to win a game against a team with some juice. Just like a win over Utah would’ve done. If Billy Napier is going to make a statement in the opening month of the season to Florida fans, keeping them engaged, then it needs to come against Tennessee. Extend the streak to 21 consecutive years of not losing to the Vols in Gainesville. Show us something on offense against a proper opponent that doesn’t entail a 10-yard hitch route or bubble-screen.

“Billy walked into a tough situation, but we’re past the grace period. Florida fans aren’t as delusional as Texas A&M, where they give Jimbo five years to, and he still hasn’t appeared in Atlanta. That athletic department is foaming at the mouth to win immediately, and I know Billy is trying his hardest. It’s not going to happen overnight. Tennessee struck lightning in a bottle, but Florida needs to start putting teams on notice. They might not win, but they’ll leave teams with battle scars,” one SEC assistant coach told OutKick.

Not The First Joe Milton vs. Graham Mertz Matchup

I know it feels like forever ago, but this isn’t the first time Graham Mertz and Joe Milton have played against each other. Nope, the first meeting came in 2020 during the Covid season, when Wisconsin played Michigan in an almost empty ‘Big House’.

The setting was ugly, with only 600 fans in attendance. Mertz was starting his second game for the Badgers, while Joe Milton had been around the Michigan program. Wisconsin would end up beating Michigan 49-11, with Mertz throwing for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Milton had 98 yards and 2 interceptions.

Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates a first half touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 14, 2020. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Now, three years later, with somewhere around 87,000 fans expected to be inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night, these two former Big Ten foes will face-off in a bitter SEC war. It’s pretty wild how two worlds can come together, especially after a rough few years.

Pretty crazy how the world works sometimes. But just like 2020, Graham Mertz is looking to finish this game with the same result, a win. While on the other side, Joe Milton is hoping Gainesville will be the site of his true coming out party.

In the final year of divisions for the conference, one more SEC East battle between the Vols and Gators should have the college football world engaged tomorrow night.

For Josh Heupel and Billy Napier, they both need this win pretty bad, for totally opposite reasons.

Written by Trey Wallace

Trey Wallace is the host of The Trey Wallace Podcast that focuses on a mixture of sports, culture, entertainment along with his perspective on everything from College Football to the College World Series.

Wallace has been covering college sports for 15 years, starting off while attending the University of South Alabama. He’s broken some of the biggest college stories including the Florida football “Credit Card Scandal” along with the firing of Jim McElwin and Kevin Sumlin. Wallace also broke one of the biggest stories in college football in 2020 around the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations against Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Wallace also appears on radio across seven different states breaking down that latest news in college sports.


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  1. One of my favorite things in the world is Tennessee’s ineptitude and terrible luck in the Swamp. And even the last two times they’ve won against UF, in 2016 they went down 21-3 and couldn’t do anything right in the first half. Then last year Florida was a few whiskers from coming from a 38-21 deficit. We all know that every Vol was convinced they were going to lose when UF got that onside kick recovery.

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