GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 11 Tennessee began the week with a players-only meeting. Topics ranged from focusing on Florida to flushing Austin Peay.
Another one that should have been mentioned: finding a way to end a decades-long skid in the Swamp on 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 started with Phillip Fulmer and spans 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’s going to happen on the next play. It’s about preparing the right way and practicing the right way. That will lead to you playing the right way.”
The Vols have dropped nine in a row at Florida Field, including two gut-wrenchers (2015 and 2017) in which the Gators scored on 63-yard pass plays in the waning minutes. Will Grier to Antonio Callaway and Feleipe Franks to Tyree Cleveland will forever be part of series lore.
Tennessee, though, 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 consecutive games in the rivalry for the first time since the 2003-04 seasons.
Heupel's team is a 6 1/2-point favorite, accoring 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 are taking lightly,” Vols defensive back Warren Burrell said.
The Gators and Vols have looked vulnerable at times this season.
Florida managed a measly 13 yards rushing in a 24-11 loss at then-No. 14 Utah to open the season and scored fewer points (49) against lower-division McNeese than Tarleton State (52) did the previous week.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulder right now,” Gators running back Trevor Etienne said. “We have to dominate in every aspect of our game from here on out.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, played well against Virginia in Week 1 but trailed lower-division Austin Peay 6-3 late in the second quarter last Saturday and was up 10 in the fourth before scoring again to seal the victory.
The Vols might not be able to afford another slow start in Gainesville. So team leaders called everyone together to clear the air.
“It was a great meeting for us, honestly," senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas said. “It allowed everybody to all see that we’re all still on the same page.”
Florida has spent much of the week trying to prepare for Tennessee’s up-tempo offense that’s directed by quarterback Joe Milton. The Gators have to find ways to slow down the Vols’ attack and be able to substitute on defense.
“There’s a skill to that,” said coach Billy Napier, who is 0-4 in rivalry games at Florida. “We don’t just show up this week and think about that. We’ve been working on how we’re going to do that. Coaches, we all bounce back and forth ideas in terms of how we do that, how we practice (that).”
MILTON VS MERTZ 2.0
Milton and Florida quarterback Graham Mertz 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 in the Big House in front of just a few hundred fans.
“Shoot, 2020, COVID, Big House, empty,” Mertz said. “That was odd.”
Both teams could get their starting center back. Tennessee's Cooper Mays had a knee procedure in August, and Florida's Kingsley Eguakun sat out the first two games while recovering from a badly sprained ankle.
Mays warmed up before last week’s game and then watched from the sideline.
“If he’s playing, we have great confidence that he’s going to play at the level that he wants to and we need him to, too,” Heupel said.
Eguakun started 26 games at center the last two seasons, a player Etienne calls “the field general when it comes to the offensive line.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll