Tennessee is always the favorite in Knoxville, but the Volunteers will be the favorite in Las Vegas when they host Florida on Saturday.
The No. 23 Volunteers (0-0, 2-0) will try to stop a seven-game losing streak to the 18th-ranked Gators (1-0, 2-0), and UT’s favored by a field goal to end the skid in the 6 p.m. matchup. ESPN will televise, and is sending its College GameDay crew.
GameDay hasn’t been to Knoxville since coming for the Auburn game in 2004, two weeks after freshman Erik Ainge engineered a 30-28 comeback victory over the Gators.
Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida since. In fact, it seems like the Volunteers only triumph over Florida after that was Lane Kiffin’s unseemly snatching of Gators commitment Nu’Keese Richardson in the midnight hour, which turned out to be prophetic on multiple levels.
The Big Orange Nation’s energy level this week seems like it’s the highest it’s been since Kiffin’s Vols were scaring a quality Virginia Tech team in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Certainly, the level of optimism is the highest its been since Derek Dooley arrived shortly after Kiffin left for Southern Cal a couple of weeks after that prime-time matchup with the Hokies.
“Well, it’s hard for me to really speak on that, because we’re really insulated in preparing for the game as coaches,” Dooley said during a teleconference Wednesday. “But I’m sure, you know, the fans are excited. Of course, they should be. We’ve had a four-year stretch where we haven’t really performed to Tennessee’s standards, and you know, for the first time, we’re at least getting talked about. But that excitement isn’t gonna stay if we don’t go out and play well, and that’s what matters the most.”
Much of the excitement is rooted in the productivity of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. At 6-foot-6, 6-4 and 6-3, respectively, Bray, Hunter and Patterson loom large for defensive coordinators.
Patterson has nine catches for 164 yards and touchdown, has rushed three times for 90 yards and a TD and returned a kickoff 61 yards.
Hunter, who was lost for the season after tearing an ACL in the first quarter at Florida last year, caught three TD passes last week and has 17 receptions for 219 yards.
Second-year Florida coach Will Muschamp is impressed with the receivers, tight end Mychal Rivera and Bray, who he thinks looks more comfortable operating a no-huddle and responding to defensive alignments on the fly. Yes, Bray piled up numbers (18-for-20 passing) during a glorified scrimmage against Georgia State, but he was productive in a season-opening 35-21 win against an N.C. State defense that held Connecticut to 239 yards total offense in a 10-7 win Saturday in East Hartford.
“I thought he did a great job against N.C. State of getting rid of the football when he needed to, uh, not taking sacks, not taking negative plays,” Muschamp said. “And certainly that was a defense that tried to create some.”
Muschamp compared Patterson to Da’Rick Rogers, who was indefinitely suspended by Tennessee and transferred to Tennessee Tech the week before the North Carolina State game. Rogers had five catches for 62 yards and a TD in UT’s 33-23 loss in Gainesville last year.
“(Patterson) is very similar to Da’Rick,” Muschamp said. “He’s a 6-3, you know, 200-plus pounds, extremely fast. He sticks his foot in the ground, is good with the ball in hands, carries the ball well, you know, catches the ball down the field.
“He’s a strong guy. He handles press (coverage) well. So I mean, he’s a very similar type of guy, as far as Rogers was concerned.”
Dooley doesn’t see UT’s drought in the series as a potential distraction.
“We don’t even really talk about that, because the last seven games had nothing to do with what’s gonna happen this week,” he said. “Whether we’ve won seven or lost seven the only thing that matters is how these teams prepare and focus day in and day out, play in and play out. And that’s what’s gonna be the difference in the game – not what’s happened historically.”
Notes: Tennessee starting linebackers Herman Lathers (shoulder) and Curt Maggitt (toe) continue to be listed as questionable after missing the Georgia State game. Florida lost linebacker Jelani Jenkins and defensive back Cody Riggs for approximately a month to injuries sustained in Saturday’s 20-17 win at Texas A&M. …
Tennessee’s four-star athlete from Florida, Alton “Pig” Howard, has been cleared to play Saturday after returning from a foot injury he suffered this summer. The 5-foot-8 speedster was rated the No. 29 overall prospect in Florida by ESPN, and Rivals rated him the No. 47 receiver nationally. …
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease is in his first season with the Gators after previously having the same position at Boise State. Pease was Montana’s offensive coordinator when it beat East Tennessee State in Missoula in the quartefinals of the FCS playoffs in 1996 and advanced to the championship game, which it lost handily against Randy Moss-led Marshall.