Well, here we go again. Tennessee fans hate Alabama and Florida, but when Gator Week rolls around, there’s a certain vinegar in the air. The Vols have played Bama close twice in recent history, but tends to be grossly outmatched in all categories and tends to lose quite convincingly. That’s not shocking: most of college football crumbles under the weight of Alabama’s talent. But Florida. Florida.The Gators. The Creeping Death. The recently broken Florida winning streak, affectionately referred to by Vol fans as “The Misery,” was special. Florida beat Tennessee regularly for a decade, regardless of rebuilding, quarterback injuries, at times fielding basically no offense whatsoever. Their secret weapon was simple: they seemed to know they were going to win. That confidence, similar to what Tennessee fans felt during the decades-long streak against Kentucky, is a mysterious but effective weapon. At the end of Tennessee’s 2016 win over the Gators (featuring 38 unanswered damn points by Tennessee never forget), there was a moment where it was hard to believe the game was over, because Florida hadn’t yet rallied and broken our hearts, a UF tradition as reliable as their weird “ 2-Bits” routine before Gator home games. But it was real. Now, the pressure to continue that broken trend follows Tennessee to Gainesville for this year’s tussle with Florida.
There are multiple points of intrigue around this game. Until Tuesday, it was unclear whether the game would be played in Atlanta, as a result of Hurricane Irma’s Floridian devastation. Instead, the game stays in GatorTown and will happen at 3:30, as scheduled. Also, the Gators have barely been on the field. When we last saw the Gators, before their Week 2 game was canceled, they were getting handled by Michigan, and couldn’t seem to make their offense happen, regardless of whether it was Philippe Franks or ( Notre Dame transfer) Malik Zaire. The Gators had obvious issues on the offensive front and at quarterback, as illustrated by only managing to score THREE whole points. Yet, this Gator team that has only scored three points of offense is favored to beat Tennessee by almost twice that. That is a perfect microcosm of the state of the Tennessee vs Florida rivalry. When the money is on the table, “the misery” feels merely postponed, not broken.
There is more to breaking a losing streak than winning a game.
Think of Tennessee as Game of Thrones character Theon Greyjoy. Theon was never super awesome, and he certainly had his flaws, but he’s a fighter and a fully capable protagonist. Then, Theon is held captive and tormented for a long time by the evil and sadistic Ramsay Bolton(perfect Florida metaphor), so much so that he becomes the broken, castrated, and cowering version of himself, called Reek. Sorry, if this metaphor triggers you, for casting Tennessee in such a weird light, but Tennessee spent more than a decade at the hands of the most frustrating, evil rivals. It changes you. Winning in 2016 was awesome, but a streak like Tennessee has just endured requires a significant return to form before the rivalry feels truly competitive again.
HOW, THO?: The Vols have more than enough tools to beat Florida this Saturday, but that’s true most years. The way Tennessee actually navigates this game is by playing smart, focused defense in the second and third layers, and by (you’re gonna hate this), playing smart, vanilla offense. There’s no evidence that Tennessee will need a ton of points to beat Florida. The Vols simply need to play methodical, measured offense, to their strengths, and avoid turnovers. Every year, this is the game where fans expect the UT coaches to crack open all the wrinkles in the playbook and unleash shock and awe weapons they’ve been hoarding. That is a mindset that will cost Tennessee this game. Tennessee’s best odds Saturday come by way of steady, smart offense and by making Florida’s uncertainty quarterbacks as uncomfortable as possible. It’s usually the case, but especially in this game, Tennessee wins the game by winning the turnover margin. Save the wrinkles for Umass (cue laugh-track).
Quarter-Back To The Future: There’s a reason the situation at Quarterback for the Vols feels weird. It’s not because Quinten has looked all that bad. He hasn’t. He’s shown some leadership, shown some arm, and has shown some poise. The uncomfortable (and uncomfortably familiar) feeling for this writer is that not so long ago, the coaches justified naming Justin Worley Tennessee’s starters with hauntingly similar statements. It’s true that Dormady looks better than Guarantano, in a way that he ought to. Q has been around the program for years. What Guarantano has is (what seems to be) a much, much higher ceiling. Thinking back to the “more athletic than you think” game manager Worley, playing ahead of what time would reveal as a trio of very special quarterbacks. Nate Peterman is in the NFL. Riley Ferguson is stuffing the stat books at Memphis. And, as you know, the last man standing in that quarterback quartet was Joshua Dobbs, who coaches and insides had unanimously shrugged on, who turned out to be a legitimate unicorn. This isn’t to imply that Dormady is the wrong choice or that he’s set up for tepid results. He could very well blossom into a dynamite pocket passer for UT. But, the ghost of old man Worley keeps lurking in the shadows of the mind when you hear the coaches talk about Dormady. The Vols offense is certainly in a weird, developmental place, and there’s nothing wrong with going the safe route. The temptation to wonder, though, if Guarantano’s confidence and special skill set isn’t in the perfect stage to grow and develop with the offense. It’s a risky proposition, for sure. But if the competition was as close as the coaches allude to, this writer has a very difficult time not investing more in the potential unicorn with the higher ceiling as a could-be 4-year starter. Hopefully, though, Quinten proves to be just the man for the Vols offense to be stable and productive, and not just the safe road for an inexperienced OC and an embattled head coach searching his team’s identity, but out of time for teaching and experimenting. The reason to roll with Dormady is to win now. This weekend will be the first true opportunity for Quinten to prove his wingspan as an SEC quarterback on the big stage.