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Front Page - Friday, September 23, 2022

Finally, UT-Florida matchup really does ‘mean more’

Running back Dylan Sampson scores one of his two touchdowns Saturday against Akron. The freshman had 57 yards on eight carries. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

By Rhiannon Potkey

How long did it take before somebody mentioned the Tennessee Volunteers’ bitter rivalry with the Florida Gators to now-second-year head coach Josh Heupel?

“Probably 30 seconds after I arrived here on campus,” Heupel says. “This is one of the ballgames that this fan base and our players point to.”

There are hugely important games that mean a lot to everyone involved with the program. Then, there’s the Florida game.

As the SEC slogan declares to the world, “It Just Means More.”

Knoxville might burst from the seams Saturday when No. 11 Tennessee (3-0) hosts No. 20 Florida (2-1, 0-1) in UT’s SEC opener at 2:30 p.m. CDT (CBS) at Neyland Stadium.

A fan base, starving for success and thirsting for relevance after years of ineptitude and scandal under previous regimes, is finally basking in the spotlight once again.

The game sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale, and ESPN’s College GameDay will be on-site for the first time since the 2016 season.

That just happened to be the last time Tennessee beat Florida in a rivalry that has tilted lopsidedly in Florida’s favor. The Gators have captured five straight in the series and 16 of the last 17 games.

Redshirt senior tight end Jacob Warren hasn’t experienced a victory over Florida in his career. But his father, James, played for the Vols in the early 1990s when the programs traded wins and losses more frequently.

“It means the world because this is what you come to schools like this for,” Warren says. “You come for these big rivalries and these big story matchups between teams. I think it means a lot this year, too, because both programs have really good teams. We’re both ranked. It’s going to be a great matchup.”

The renewed fervor for the Vols was obvious last weekend when they drew a sellout crowd of 101,915 for a game against an Akron team that was nearly a 50-point underdog. It was the first sellout for a nonconference game since Oklahoma in 2015.

“A fan base as good as it gets,” Heupel says. “They care, they’re passionate, you can feel their energy, you can feel their optimism, you can feel their belief. Our entire program can feel that on the outside, too.”

Tennessee faces a Florida team that has been up and down during the first three games. Following a big win against Utah in the season opener, the Gators have been average in a loss to Kentucky and a three-point win against a struggling South Florida program.

Florida’s performances have mirrored those of quarterback Anthony Richardson. Many pundits were lauding the athletic sophomore as a Heisman leader after the win over the Utes. But he’s been much less dynamic in the last two games.

Still, the Vols are on guard for the challenges Richardson presents.

“He can throw the football. He’s big, physical and imposing,” Heupel says. “You have to bottle him up because he can make you pay. That’s going to be a critical part of the football game.”

In contrast to Richardson, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has been a portrait of steadiness in leading an offense that ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (52.0 points) and third in the FBS in total offense (553.7 yards).

The national stage could boost Hooker’s standings in the Heisman chase.

The fifth-year senior transfer has thrown 37 touchdowns and only three interceptions through 16 games at UT. He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in 15 straight games, and has thrown multiple touchdowns in six straight games.

“The main focus for me is taking care of the team. The ball is the team,” Hooker says. “Just taking care of the ball is something that has been preached to me since I was a young age.”

Heupel credits last year’s 38-14 loss to Florida in Gainesville as a turning point for the program under a new staff.

“There’s a lot of things we didn’t do right, but resetting afterward that Monday, where we came back in and were just able to show how everything unfolded and the things that we controlled I think created a ton of buy-in, too,” Heupel says. “At the end of the day, this is the fourth game of this journey this year. It’s a big one because it’s the only one we got this week.”

Given Florida’s dominance in the rivalry during the last two decades, could the Gators present a psychological hurdle for the Vols?

“I don’t believe that,” Heupel says. “Each week is different, each day is different, each season is. For us, we’re however many months into our program here right now. Our kids are extremely confident as they should be.”

Entering the 52nd meeting between the rivals, there are many parallels to the 2016 season. It’s the first time both programs are ranked, and it’s UT’s highest ranking since that season.

The Vols have started 3-0 for the first time since 2016 and are meeting the Gators in the fourth game of the season yet again.

It also just happens to be on the exact same date – Sept. 24.

The Vols are hoping for a similar ending as when they rallied from a 21-0 deficit to beat Florida and snap an 11-game losing streak to the Gators. The win sent Neyland Stadium into complete pandemonium.

The city and fans would love nothing more than for the Vols to take them on a similar joy ride, yet one with more sustained success to follow.

Tennessee being a national contender isn’t only good for college football, it’s good for the local economy. During every home game, hotel rooms are booked solid and food and alcohol sales escalate.

Saturday’s game will see the return of #CheckerNeyland, with fans wearing orange and white to showcase UT’s checkerboard pattern throughout the stadium.

And although the UT players and coaches are trying to treat it like just another game on the schedule, they all know it’s different when Florida is involved.

“This is what you play SEC ball for,” Warren says. “Weekends like this.”