The last time the Gators came to town, Florida was on its way to a BCS bowl and Will Muschamp looked like he was the right coach for the job. The Vols had some momentum, too. Tennessee was ranked in the top-25, Gameday was in town, Neyland was rocking and the majority of fans thought UT was finally “back.”
Tennessee was fresh off a convincing win over what was supposed to be a good NC State team. Sal Sunseri’s “defense” miraculously managed to both pressure the quarterback and force turnovers (four) in Tennessee’s 35-21 win over the Wolfpack. Offensively, UT didn’t miss a beat without recently booted receiver Da’Rick Rogers thanks to a guy named Cordarrelle Patterson who burst onto the scene with over 160 yards of offense in Rogers’ place. Fans, and some media members, were even talking of Tyler Bray as a Heisman candidate.
The program had undeniable momentum and Dooley had nearly coached himself off the hot seat and atoned for an inexcusable loss to Kentucky the season prior.
Even with so much on the line for the Vols, it was Florida who jumped out early in that game. They capitalized on a Bray interception in the first quarter to take a 7-0 lead but the Vols evened the score shortly thereafter on a Patterson TD. At the half the Vols led 14-10 and everyone could feel how close the program was to a breakthrough. With a 20-13 lead in the 3rd quarter, the Vols stuffed a fake punt at the Florida 47 and Neyland almost exploded.
I vividly remember looking around, soaking it in and thinking: “The streak is over and the Vols are back.”
I’ve never been more wrong.
The Vols managed a total of two yards on three plays on that drive and never crossed midfield the rest of the game. That Florida game was there for the taking. Tennessee was in position to put the Gators away in the 3rd quarter and, like their coach, just couldn’t get it done when it mattered most.
A lot can change in two years.
Florida’s coach, not Tennessee’s, enters this game on the hot seat. “There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business,” Muschamp said in his opening statement at SEC Media Days before the season. “That’s part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we’re going to do.” A narrow overtime victory over Kentucky and a historic drubbing at the hands of Alabama suggest otherwise. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has repeatedly said he won’t make a decision on Muschamp until the season ends, but unless the season takes a dramatic turn, his hand will be forced.
Florida didn’t put the final nail in Dooley’s coffin, but after the Gators rallied for a 37-20 win two years ago, everyone knew that nail was coming and coming soon – the worst coach in program history was on his way out.
With a victory Saturday, Tennessee can return the favor.