A confession: I used to hate Tennessee. And I can't hate it right now. And I'm happy about that.
I'm a Florida fan who came along at the tail end of Peyton Manning's 0-4 record against Florida, so I remember when Tennessee was very, very good — capable of disposing of Florida State and keeping a national title away from the more-loathed 'Noles, capable of wrecking a Florida season, capable of breaking my heart. Those teams loomed at the beginning of Florida's seasons as the first high hurdle, the first real test for Gators squads that always looked great in pulverizing overmatched cupcakes in the first two games of the year.
When Florida won big against Tennessee, it was a great sign; when Florida had to beat a good team close, it was a relief to have the toughest SEC East foe out of the way; when Florida fell, the road to Atlanta became treacherously sloped. Those Florida teams and those Tennessee turned a rivalry that wasn't really a rivalry into one of the nation's best, just like those Florida teams and some of the LSU teams of the era made a series into a rivalry. That was a great time to hate Tennessee.
But the Tennessee teams of the last decade have not been those teams, while Florida's teams have been as good or better. The games between the two teams have gone to Florida eight straight times, and rarely been close. And what was once a rivalry just behind Florida's rivalry with Florida State's in annual importance has become more like a series.
Florida fans know a lot about series, and one-sided ones: Its twin long winning streaks against Kentucky and Vanderbilt have made those games automatic wins in the minds of every Florida fan, no matter how good those teams are or how far removed from its peak Florida is. It's ridiculous to even suggest that the Gators should hate Kentucky — except in basketball — or Vanderbilt; hammers can't summon hate for the nail, as the nail cannot hurt the hammer.
For eight years, Tennessee has been trending toward the nail, and Florida's been the hammer. The Vols came close to derailing what became a championship campaign in 2006, but that's as close as they've come to hurting Florida, while the Gators delivered welts on a yearly basis: 59-20, 37-20, 30-6. Florida's worst team since 1990 beat Tennessee by 10 points in 2011; its second-worst team topped the Vols by two touchdowns on Rocky Top in 2010. The 2012 Gators, so anemic on offense all year, rolled up 555 yards on Tennessee, led by a Superman act from Trey Burton.
I miss the times when Tennessee wasn't just the nail, and miss feeling like there was something more than an SEC win at stake when the Gators meet the Vols on the field. But I don't think anyone's really complaining about this new status quo.
Florida doesn't need more rivals at the moment, because its schedule is always rigorous and its main rivals — Florida State and Georgia — are national powers. Tennessee was, at its best, no better than a substitute for Georgia, which lost its fear factor for Florida fans in the Steve Spurrier years and only recently regained it, as a hate receptacle. The Tennessee rivalry feels like a relic of those same Spurrier years, and the Gators haven't played a classic against the Vols since their last loss to them, two coaches ago; the Tennessee series is what Urban Meyer-and-Tim Tebow fans know, so they don't know what they're missing.
Without competition, a rivalry's flames will burn down to embers. That is what we have now. And stomping out those embers is better than stoking them.
Florida doesn't need to humiliate Tennessee today, just to beat it. The Gators can afford to think of this game as a must-win because of its SEC ramifications, not the hate in their hearts for Tennessee — Florida seniors since 2008 haven't seen a loss to the Vols — and can focus on executing a game plan to get them back on the right track. Will Muschamp's process exists to create consistent excellence, to mark every game as a big one because, in the words of Ronald Powell, "We in it." There is only one heavyweight on the field today, and though a flurry knocked it down in the last round, there are many more rounds to fight.
This game against Tennessee feels like it's about Florida, not Tennessee. If Florida wins, it will almost certainly have been about Florida, not Tennessee. If Florida loses? Florida will be under .500 for the first time in my lifetime, and staring a 7-5 season in the face, and so the game will have been about Florida's failure — but it will also have been about a Tennessee upset. The rivalry that was once so integral to Florida's season might flicker back to life.
Here's hoping the Gators don't let that rivalry return.