Coaches, teams mirror newfound vigor for Vols-Gators in future

by | CBSSports.com
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The two good friends stood back to back, 20 yards apart.

On one side of the 50-yard line at a slowly swelling Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, rookie Florida coach Will Muschamp paced, looked at his shoetops and coolly observed players in warmup stretches.

On the opposite side, Tennessee second-year man Derek Dooley -- making his initial trip as head coach to the Steve Spurrier-christened "Swamp" -- clapped alongside generic games of catch involving loosening quarterbacks and limbering wideouts.

But they could only hold their scripted detachment for so long.

Eventually, as his Gators disengaged and scattered to position groups ... Muschamp broke, too.

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He turned, walked across the midfield stripe and successfully sought out the 43-year-old Dooley -- a close colleague over five seasons on staffs at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins -- for a warm handshake, a few seconds of chat and a hearty slap on the back.

And in doing so, he initiated a bold new era.

Since the UF/UT rendezvous went yearly in 1990, the get-togethers have been dominated on the field by Florida -- now 16-6 in 22 games, including seven straight after Saturday’s 33-23 win -- and off the field by coaches who shook hands through clenched teeth on arrival and grinned with contentious glee on departure.

Former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer was a go-to verbal target for the perpetually fiery Spurrier -- a Tennessee high school alum -- before the "Ol’ Ball Coach" left Gainesville soon after the visiting Volunteers beat his No. 2 Gators 34-32 in the 2001 regular-season finale.

The aborted one-year tenure of Fulmer's successor, Lane Kiffin, was marked by a veiled preseason reference to recruiting violations lobbed at then-Florida coach Urban Meyer, who stonily answered the remarks with a satisfying 10-point win in their lone Gainesville meeting in 2009.

Meyer beat Dooley in the latter's first SEC game a year later in Knoxville, but exited after 2010 and passed the baton to Muschamp -- who had been anointed coach-in-waiting at Texas after coming through the ranks with Auburn, West Georgia, Eastern Kentucky, Valdosta State, LSU and the Dolphins.

But the lure of SEC lore was too strong for the now 40-year-old, who lived in Gainesville as a child before leaving the area when his father took a job in Georgia -- which led to Muschamp's progression from walk-on to co-captain with the University of Georgia, where Dooley's father, Vince, was athletic director.

To say it's in their DNA, then, is just barely hyperbolic.

Both Dooley and Muschamp reverentially referred to the tradition during the run-up to Saturday, claiming a nationally-televised schedule-opening matchup with the other school was "the reason kids want to come" to Florida or Tennessee in the first place.

And while players and assistants on both sides parroted "great respect" and insisted "it means no more than any other," a brave few let real vibes sneak out, including Florida junior Omar Hunter, who admitted harboring "hatred" for the Vols during a pre-game media chat five days before kickoff.

And in that sound bite ... a moribund rivalry was reborn.

For some, perhaps too harshly.

For others, with an ideal mix of civility/conflict.

And, to those buying in to the PC monologues before, look no further than Muschamp after.

The first SEC win unlocked boyish zeal from the congenitally intense coach -- triggering a romp with his children, huge hugs for his players and a Gator-chomp strut to the tunnel when he finally made his way through the post-game commotion en route to the south-side end zone.

Will Muschamp, with wife Carol, is in a jolly mood after beating the Vols. (AP)  
Will Muschamp, with wife Carol, is in a jolly mood after beating the Vols. (AP)  
Minutes later in the media room, true feelings continued.

"The atmosphere in this stadium, it's incomparable," he said afterward, face still flushed from the joyful tumult. "It's certainly a different buzz around here. Our guys understand what's at stake playing in the SEC, and playing well in the SEC."

And going forward -- the Gators to Kentucky next week, the Volunteers home to face Buffalo Oct. 1 -- it seems both have armed themselves toward the latter objective.

Much of the skill on Florida's defense -- which held Tennessee to minus-9 yards rushing, sacked sophomore QB Tyler Bray three times and picked him off twice -- will return next year and beyond.

Linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, who accounted for 14 of 52 tackles, are a junior and a sophomore, respectively, while the starting Gator backfield of Marcus Roberson, Matt Elam, De'Ante Saunders and Cody Riggs goes freshman, sophomore, freshman and sophomore.

Overall, the roster includes 68 freshmen and sophomores, with only 35 seniors and juniors.

For Tennessee, it's no different on what had been a prolific offense through two "preseason" games, with Bray and starting WRs Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers also in their sophomore years.

Up front, the Volunteer starters Saturday included a junior and four sophomores, and, as a whole, Tennessee is the only team in the nation to start three true freshmen on the field at the same time -- in linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt and cornerback Justin Coleman.

The conference opener, it seems, is in good hands.

And, should talent on paper continue to equal production on grass, the East Division title may not be a foregone Columbia conclusion after all.

Welcome to the SEC, boys.

It's good to have y'all back.

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