Like any American progressive who has come to disdain “liberal” as a word insufficient to describe my politics in 2021, I have a soft spot for Toby Keith. Or, thanks to growing up partly on the country music of the late ‘90s, I at least have some lingering affinity for some of his songs, ones that aren’t as jingoistic as “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” or as stupid as “Red Solo Cup.”
“As Good as I Once Was” — yeah, I dunno why the second as in the title doesn’t get a capital letter, either — is one of those songs. It has elements of the macho garbage that Keith leans on a lot more heavily on those other two songs, but it’s all in service of capturing a specific sort of rueful, wistful tone of longing for a better self. (Personally, I get “Now my body says ‘You can’t do this boy’ / But my pride says ‘Oh yes, you can’” a whole lot better than I did on the other side of 30.)
And it should be no surprise, especially given what you’re reading, that the song makes me think of Florida-Tennessee — or, rather, Florida-Tennessee makes me think of the song.
Florida-Tennessee was the second-best Florida rivalry of the ‘90s, and stayed there for the early 2000s. It wasn’t just about Florida getting over a hump by rallying in the rain, the Gators stymieing Peyton, and Tennessee breaking through a year after he couldn’t; it ran into the fateful rescheduled 2001 meeting, Jabar Gaffney making a catch that Tennessee fans still swear he didn’t, Dallas Baker getting penalized, Daniel Lincoln making a kick, and Casey Clausen conducting the band.
Since about the moments when Tim Tebow plunged for first downs in 2007, though, it’s been about Florida being the truck and Tennessee being the duck. Yeah, Quincy Wilson got that quote thrown back in his face after Florida collapsed in Knoxville, but Florida has been the truck that has run over Tennessee more often than not in the last decade and a half.
Florida is 14-1 in its last 15 meetings with Tennessee — the same record it owns in its last 15 meetings with Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Go back to any point in the ‘90s and tell a Gator that will come to pass, and you’ll get laughed out of whatever room with a poster you’re in.
Maybe tonight will be different. Josh Heupel is the fifth different full-time football head coach Tennessee has hired since Philip Fulmer’s tenure on the sidelines — or the part of it that didn’t come with NCAA secondary violations, anyway — came to an end, and hope springs eternal, as usual. A run defense that has held up against powers like Pittsburgh and Bowling Green provides some minimal hope of stopping a Florida running game that just thrashed Alabama; a passing attack led by Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker — whose name suggests he may have toured with Reel Big Fish — will not have to contend with elite cornerback Kaiir Elam, who is sitting this game out to nurse a knee sprain.
Maybe the duck will pull the truck. It has before.
But from where I sit, at least for now, them boys don’t look all that tough.
Here are 10 predictions for Florida’s meeting with Tennessee.
- Emory Jones will throw at least 20 passes.
- Anthony Richardson will not take 15 snaps.
- Florida will gain at least 150 rushing yards.
- Florida will score more than four offensive touchdowns.
- Jacob Copeland will score at least one touchdown.
- Florida’s defense will force multiple turnovers.
- Florida will allow points in the first half.
- Florida will record at least three sacks.
- Florida will lead by 20 at some point in the game.
- Florida will defeat Tennessee, 45-20.