Knoxville, Tenn. -- Once upon a time, Florida-Tennessee was one of the most anticipated games in all of college football.
Both teams were perpetually in the preseason top five. Florida's Steve Spurrier and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer were in their prime. Florida had Danny Wuerffel. Tennessee had Peyton Manning. The winner not only had the inside track to the SEC championship, but was an early favorite for the national championship as well.
And the loser of the Tennessee-Florida game fully expected not to lose again and to play in a BCS bowl.
In fact, for 10 straight years (1992-2001) either Florida or Tennessee played in the SEC championship. That's how dominant they were. But that was then. And this is now. And right now Tennessee-Florida ain't what it used to be.
There was no other conclusion to draw here at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night after Florida's 31-17 victory. The final score may look like a dominating performance from the No. 10 team in the nation. But it wasn't. And 102,455 shelled out their hard-earned money to see it.
"We are 3-0 and that's all that matters," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "Right now this is who we are."
Who Florida is right now is a team that started No. 4 in the nation and has continued to drop in the polls despite winning its first two games by a combined 46 points. To put it bluntly, the more people see this Florida team the more it becomes apparent that it does not belong in the top 10.
"It really doesn't matter," defensive end Justin Trattou said. "We just went on the road in the SEC and won. Now we just have to find a way to win the next game."
But will the Gators keep winning? No one said life after Tim Tebow was supposed to be easy, but it was never supposed to be this hard.
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Florida quarterback John Brantley continues to struggle with an offense that can't figure out what it wants to be. The Gators don't have a power running game without Tebow. They faced a third-and-a-foot and didn't convert. Then they faced fourth-and-a-foot. Still didn't get it. No. 15 was automatic in those situations.
Brantley has an NFL arm and a bunch of highly regarded receivers. But on Saturday, Florida ran the ball 49 out of 72 plays.
"We just trust our offensive line," said Brantley, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 167 yards.
Florida, we are told, has recruited better than anyone the past five years. On paper it says the Gators are going to get better as the season goes on. They had better do it in a hurry because after next week's home game with Kentucky (which is not an automatic 'W' I might add) the Gators go to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 2. This summer we thought that game would be an epic showdown between the last two national champions. Right now it doesn't look close. But that doesn't matter, the Gators said, because Florida doesn't have to play Alabama today.
"Right now we just want to be good enough to beat Kentucky," Meyer said. "Are we good enough? I can't say that yet."
Trust me when I tell you that Tennessee gave a superb effort to keep the game close for as long as it did. It has been a long time since the Volunteers have been this short of SEC caliber football players. Three years of turmoil, which included the firing of Fulmer in 2008 and the hiring and abrupt departure of Lane Kiffin as the resident Boy Wonder, will do that to a program.
The short-range prognosis is bleak for first-year coach Derek Dooley, whose father Vince won 201 games at Georgia and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. Dooley is trying to build the infrastructure of a program that the previous coach could not be bothered to think about. The schedule would be brutal for a good team. Oregon came in last week and scored 45 unanswered points to win 48-13. After a home game with UAB next week, October includes games at LSU, at Georgia, Alabama at home and at South Carolina.
Tennessee didn't win but it didn't get embarrassed either. Last week Dooley had to call out his team for sagging once Oregon got a 14-point cushion in the second half. "We have to learn to overcome adversity because we are going to have to face a bunch of it," he said earlier this week.
Saturday Dooley felt like his team had taken a step forward.
"I'm proud of how we competed," Dooley said. "We had a ton of adversity. I mean a ton more than we ever need in a football game. Because of the fact that we kept swinging, we were sitting there in the fourth quarter and it was a seven-point game."
So Florida keeps winning ugly and figures that even if it loses to Alabama on Oct. 2, the Gators have enough talent to get back to the SEC championship game. Tennessee will try to find glimmers of hope where it can. Five wins would be a really good season for the Volunteers.
But for now we lament the late, great football rivalry that was Florida-Tennessee. It sure was fun while it lasted.
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