When we think of the recent history of Florida and Tennessee, we think of a hammer and a nail. And, for once, my “we” means more than Florida fans: Columnists write that Florida winning is “just how this rivalry works” and that Tennessee is headed for “mental crisis”; Tennessee fans script imaginary conversations with priests that prepare them for anything.
The neurosis and fear are all for and from the Volunteers.
This makes some sense, of course. It is legitimate to debate whether Butch Jones must win this game — something his two immediate predecessors didn’t do, and something Tennessee’s only national title-winning coach since the Vietnam War did five times in 17 seasons — to avoid being thrown onto the hot seat, because Tennessee entered 2016 with expectations greater than its accomplishments probably merited.
The promises of Tennessee’s improving roster — one finally returning to the talent level required to compete for titles, even in the reputedly moribund SEC East — and its fine play to finish 2015 made the Vols a trendy pick to win many games in 2016. So far, they have, but unimpressively: Tennessee trailed against Appalachian State and Virginia Tech, and never led by double digits against Ohio. The Vols have been sloppy at best on offense, and have done little to impress on defense, even before injuries robbed them of starting cornerback Cam Sutton and a full-strength Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Yet Tennessee remains the favorite to win this weekend, both in Las Vegas and by advanced power rating systems like F/+ and ESPN’s Football Power Index. (S&P+ projects the Gators to win by 1.2 points.)
What we have in that mix of facts is a fortunate spot for Florida: The Gators are “expected” to win, because history tells us so, but not favored to do so by many. If Florida wins, it’s a pleasant surprise and a continuation of the status quo.
And if Florida loses, it does little to diminish the Gators or Jim McElwain. Florida would still be in the thick of the SEC East race, because Tennessee has to play Alabama and Arkansas, and McElwain would go from having the third-best record through 17 games of any Florida coach ever, at 13-4, to ... having the third-best record through 18 games of any Florida coach ever, at 13-5. (Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier were 14-3 and 15-3, so McElwain can’t catch either one.)
And even though Tennessee is certainly weakened by injury, Florida’s most serious injury — Luke Del Rio’s MCL sprain — is the most important one for either team, forcing a little-known Purdue transfer into the national limelight.
The conventional wisdom about football is that it is hard to win games on the road, and hard to win games without a starting quarterback. The former is part of why home teams get anywhere from a field goal to a touchdown worth of credit from oddsmakers; the extension of the latter is why Bill Belichick has gotten and will get fulsome praise for his Patriots skunking the Texans with former Florida quarterback Jacoby Brissett on Thursday night — despite Brissett generating no plays of more than 27 yards, and leading no touchdown drives of more than 50 yards.
Florida is attempting to win a road game before what is sure to be a raucous crowd of nearly 100,000 fans with its backup quarterback. In virtually any other matchup of two college football teams, the expectation would be that the road team in this game would be a substantial underdog; instead, Tennessee’s just about a touchdown favorite.
And those who well and truly believe that Tennessee will win are few and far between.
This Saturday in Knoxville, the Vols will have to prove that water isn’t wet, that gravity doesn’t apply, that pigs can, in fact, take flight. All Florida has to do is show that, once again, an orange sun will set in a blue sky.