An opportunity like this doesn’t come very often. In Tennessee’s case, it’s been over six years. The biggest game in recent history for the No. 11 Vols will be played against the No. 20 Florida Gators on Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, with a lot on the line.
I recently started watching the show ‘Friday Night Lights’ again during my downtime. I’ve enjoyed watching scenes at the Alamo Freeze where former players come around, showing off their rings and reminding current players to Win State. I brought up the show to a friend last week, who reminded me that there’s a similar feeling this time of year in Knoxville: Beat Florida.
If I had the Doc Brown DeLorean and could go back in time to the introductory press conference for head coach Josh Heupel and tell fans that in just 16 games, they would be ranked No. 11 in the country heading into the 2022 Florida game, they’d call me crazy.
But, this is the position that Tennessee finds itself. UT has the opportunity to take the next step as a football program.
It’s crazy how life works out, though Tennessee fans would just call this normal. Last season it was all about navigating through choppy waters, with an NCAA investigation rocking the boat. Now, Josh Heupel has his football team taking center stage on Saturday with a chance at a statement win.
Now, I am not implying Florida is a massive win nationally. But for Tennessee, this is the game you have to win to get over the hump for future success.
For far too long, the Gators have beaten the Vols with lesser quality teams, which has driven fans crazy thinking about what could have been. This is why I emphasize the magnitude of this meeting, knowing what it could do for the football program and wild fan base.
Josh Heupel most certainly has the more talented football team, but in this game, it means nothing. I’ve seen lesser overall talented Florida teams beat the Vols a number of times.
The Past Meets The Present in Tennessee
The last time Tennessee defeated Florida was in 2016, behind quarterback Josh Dobbs and coach Butch Jones. That win came in Knoxville under similar circumstances, with the “CheckerNeyland” crowd and a fan base waiting to explode like a powder keg.
I was returning from Auburn this past Sunday and came across a Tennessee fan on the interstate, with his car flag flying. We ended up at the same gas station off I-75 just south of Chattanooga. I asked the gentleman for his thoughts on the season so far. He replied, “We just gotta beat Florida.”
Neyland Stadium will be filled to capacity, with fans looking to cause problems with their voices, just as they did in 2016 against the Gators.
We’ll see how much the atmosphere effects Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson. Head coach Billy Napier isn’t too worried about his quarterback.
“It’s not like we’re going into Canada and they’re going to change the rules,” Napier said. “It’s going to be the same game. Going to be a little louder and played at a different location.”
I hate to be the one to break it to Napier, but this game has the feeling of the 2015 Tennessee-Oklahoma matchup, where I couldn’t hear myself think on the sidelines. But Florida could end up doing the same thing it’s done in the past, which is to silence the crowd with some wild play on the field that leads to a victory. Though I don’t see that happening, anything is possible with these two teams.
Tennessee Comes Into This Game Hot
As for this game, just know that it never makes sense. I don’t care where each team is ranked or who has the better players, it’s going to be a crapshoot. But in terms of where Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker, WR Cedric Tillman and other Vols have this team at the moment, they couldn’t be in a better spot. The offense is clicking and the defense seems to have made some much-needed improvements from 2021.
The buildup to Saturday will feel like an eternity. As we creep closer to game time, the clock will move at a snail’s pace. For the players inside the Tennessee locker room, they aren’t worried about the past, simply because they were most likely 15-16 years old the last time the Vols defeated Florida.
But even though they weren’t old enough to attend senior prom at the time, I can promise you that they’ve heard enough about the Florida game from fans and former players.
Josh Heupel was asked about the current players having to inherit the psychological hurdles of playing Florida and being the team to finally win this game.
“I don’t believe that,” Heupel said. “Each week is different, each day and each season. For us, however many months into our program we are at right now, our kids are extremely confident. They prepare the right way, work hard and we continue to grow. They know the preparation will be the most important thing.
“It’s gonna be a great atmosphere and we have to be able to control our emotions during the course of the football game,” Heupel added. “Compete, and not have our emotions go up and down during the course of the game.”
Controlling Emotions Is Key
If you want to fully understand the magnitude of this game, Josh Heupel pointed out that he was made aware of how important this matchup was just 30 minutes after stepping foot on campus. To understand what Tennessee fans think of Florida, I’ll go back to the example from the series Friday Night Lights. Win State in Knoxville is Beat Florida.
It’s more than a football game in this town. It’s a game that could ruin a week, make a year and always be brought up at the local Quarterback Club meeting.
There will most likely be around 140,000 folks on the Tennessee campus this weekend. Some will just come for the tailgates and atmosphere, while others will patiently wait to enter the stadium.
If Tennessee were to beat Florida on Saturday, it will certainly go down as one of the most important wins in recent history. Not just because of the opponent, but what the win says about the trajectory of the football program.
It’s time for Tennessee to take the next step. Let’s see if the Vols up for the challenge.