ESPN returns to Rocky Top: Vol-Gator clash returns to national spotlight
By Grant Ramey | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Tennessee-Florida game with meaning. A Tennessee-Florida game that should go a long way in helping determine the Southeastern Conference’s East division champion. A Tennessee-Florida game in the national spotlight.
For the first time since 2007, both teams will be ranked when they meet at 6 p.m. today inside Neyland Stadium. And for the first time since 2004, ESPN’s College GameDay show will be on campus, bringing the attention of a national audience to Tennessee’s campus this morning when it broadcasts live from UT’s Circle Park.
“We were talking about it driving in. It’s been a few years since we’ve been here,” GameDay co-host Kirk Herbstreit said Friday in a sit-down with local news media. “And it’s been a long time since we had Florida and Tennessee.”
The last time the GameDay trio of host Chris Folwer and co-hosts Lee Corso and Herbstreit were in Knoxville was 2004 — the same year Tennessee last beat Florida. That visit ended with No. 8 Auburn beating No. 10 Tennessee, 34-10.
“When I first started on GameDay in ’96 it was a staple every year,” Herbstreit said. “The third week we would do the game with Spurrier and Philip Fulmer.
“We’re excited. This is a great rivalry, it’s fun to watch. We find out early a little more about these two teams, and find out who’s ready to take that next step and compete in the SEC East.”
It’s a far cry from the rivalry that was between Tennessee-Florida, Spurrier-Fulmer in the mid-to-late ’90s.
The next step
Now, both teams desperately need to take that next step.
For Florida, it’s second-year head coach Will Muschamp who needs to take that step after a disappointing 7-6 season in his debut in Gainesville.
For Tennessee, it’s Derek Dooley, trying to find that signature win showing he’s righted a program that was in turmoil when he was hired.
Herbstreit said Friday that the Vols had the tools to start that step in the right direction against Florida.
“Obviously you have to look at the way Tyler Bray is performing,” Herbstreit said, “when he’s been healthy and when he’s had receivers that are healthy.
“I think their big play ability against a Florida defense that’s coming off an impressive second half against (Texas) A&M, and how they match up against an explosive offense from Tennessee is a huge storyline.”
Another storyline for Herbstreit and the GameDay crew? The factors that sent Tennessee’s program into its downward spiral over the last half-decade.
“To me one of the things I’m going to bring up is, in my opinion, everything that’s happened to this athletic department in the last five or six years,” Herbrstreit said. “From the basketball program to Pat Summitt and her health; Mike Hamilton being removed as athletic director; Lane Kiffin coming and going; and now of course there’s a new coach and things haven’t gone well the last few years.”
At least through two years and two weeks of a new season, Dooley seems to have Tennessee back on track.
The Vols re-entered the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time since the beginning of the 2008 season — debuting at No. 23 — after a 51-13 win over Georgia State. Tennessee won in impressive fashion in a much-anticipated season-opener two weeks ago against North Carolina State.
“This fan base is starving to getting Tennessee back to being relevant in the SEC East,” Herbstreit said. “I think because of that, it’s kind of adding to the excitement and the buildup of the game.”
Herbstreit said all the pieces are in place for Dooley, with the national spotlight on Knoxville, to make a statement about a Tennessee program on the way back to where it used to be.
“I just feel like the table is set, and now we’re going to find out if Coach Dooley and this Tennessee program are able to capitalize.
“It’s right there. We’ll see if they’re able to take advantage of it.”