Tennessee, Florida meet with former coaching colleagues at a crossroads

Both coaches after Top-25 win to solidify tenure

Charlie Daniel's cartoon for the Vols game against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Photo by Charlie Daniel

Charlie Daniel's cartoon for the Vols game against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

They worked together as young, up-and-coming assistant coaches before career paths took them in different directions.

Today, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley and Florida's Will Muschamp meet at a remarkably similar crossroads as two tradition-rich programs strive for their old places of national prominence.

No. 23 Tennessee (2-0) and No. 18 Florida (2-0) play at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, 6 p.m.) in a game that could catapult the winner into the SEC East race. For the loser, the defeat will be familiar.

Dooley, in his third year with the Vols, is 0-10 against nationally ranked opponents. Muschamp, in Year 2, is 0-5 against Top 25 teams.

The Gators won 13 games as recently as 2009, but Dooley and the Vols are on a longer road back.

Tennessee is ranked for the first time since the first week of the 2008 season, and the Vols have lost 17 of 18 to ranked teams.

The years of drought explain the week of excitement in Knoxville. The game sold out rapidly and secondary market ticket prices have surged.

But inside the football headquarters on Johnny Majors Drive, little has changed. Publicly, Dooley has offered gentle reminders that this is only Week 3, and that the Vols currently have the same record that they did last year at this time. (Tennessee lost seven of its final 10 games in 2011).

"If we win, we have a lot more games left on the schedule," Dooley said. "If we don't win, the sky isn't going to fall. We have to regroup, learn from it and go play the rest of the schedule. We've played two games."

Dooley and Muschamp coached together under Nick Saban at LSU and then the Miami Dolphins. Dooley became head coach at Louisiana Tech, while Muschamp took a job as defensive coordinator at Auburn and then Texas. Muschamp eventually assumed the head-coach-in-waiting title at Texas, but the wait turned out to be quite lengthy. With Texas coach Mack Brown showing no inkling of retirement, Muschamp left for Florida when Urban Meyer resigned following the 2010 season.

Meyer had left some holes on the Gators' roster — perhaps more than anyone realized — but the Florida recruiting juggernaut has continued under Muschamp.

"I think Will is getting the team how he wants it," Dooley said.

Muschamp said the same of Dooley.

"I think you're kind of seeing a little bit more of his identity and personality in this football team as maybe opposed to the previous two years," Muschamp said.

Even in mid-September, there are plenty of unknowns about this year's Tennessee team, and Dooley acknowledged as much.

"This is our third game, our conference opener," he said. "We'll find out a little more about our football team this week."

The rest of the country could find out more about the Vols as well. Three players who could have NFL futures — quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson — will have a chance to showcase their talents nationally tonight.

Bray, like Dooley, is seeking his first marquee win with the Vols. If he puts up numbers like he has in the first two weeks, a win might push him into more national awards talk.

"He's played two great games, but he also knows he's going to get measured by his body of work over time," Dooley said. "This will be a big challenge for him. He knows he's going to get a lot of pressure. He has to get the ball out, and our guys have to win outside on the perimeter."

Hunter, a junior, has only started seven games in his career due to injury, and Dooley believes he still has room to grow. He'll get a chance to prove today that he can rack up yards against a physical Florida secondary.

"This is going to be a whole different philosophy in the secondary because they are going to put their hands on us and play deny-the-ball," Dooley said. "They're going to grab and they're going to push. It's going to be physical. We have to go out there and match it."

If the Vols pull it off, they'll be 3-0 for the first time since 2004 and snap a seven-game losing streak against the Gators. A victory would set off a huge celebration among the win-starved fan base, but it would also elevate the importance of future games, starting with Sept. 29 at Georgia.

"The more you win, the more important they become," Dooley said. "That's how it is."

Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.

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Comments » 11

voldo71 writes:

OMG cant wait till we put it too the Gators...living in Orlando most of my life it was horrible down there and sooo glad to be back amongst the natives...GoVols!! VFL!!

bmiller#222442 writes:

Just win baby and the rest will take care of itself. Still think we gotta run the ball effectively between the tackles to win this undoubtedly physical game! OGSLOV!!!!

TheRealDragonSlayer writes:

You heard it here first. We will have 100 yards rushing in the first half.

Vols 49
Fla 17

VolGrad writes:

in response to TheRealDragonSlayer:

You heard it here first. We will have 100 yards rushing in the first half.

Vols 49
Fla 17

I don't know if I could personally handle beating them that bad. It just wouldn't be PC, ya' know? And I'm sure I'd feel terrible the rest of the seas..., NOT!

Go Vols! Gut the Gators!!!

mikethehistorystudent writes:

I don't like Dooley trying to downplay this game. It sounds like he's trying to soften the blow when we lose. Let's be honest and say that this game means a lot and if Tennessee wins then we're on the road to recovery. We need this win like the desert needs the rain folks.

Our ability to run the ball or not is the biggest factor in this game. Our offense can't be one sided and succeed against real opponents. If we can run for over 110 yards, we win. If we rush for less than 70, we lose.

McMinnVol writes:

We have way too many weapons in our passing game to focus on the run game this year. A bigger issue to me than how many yards we run for is avoiding the turnovers. If we avoid them, we win --- and perhaps win big. GO VOLS!

Classof72 writes:

"If we don't win, the sky isn't going to fall."
-Derek Dooley

"We're gonna keep fighting. Is that CLEAR? We're gonna attack all night, we're gonna attack tomorrow morning. If we are not VICTORIOUS, let no man come back alive!"
- George C. Scott, pretending to be Gen. George S. Patton

Winning a football game isn't really important, but it's a good idea to pretend that it is if you really want to win the game. GO VOLS!

SouthPaVol writes:

in response to Classof72:

"If we don't win, the sky isn't going to fall."
-Derek Dooley

"We're gonna keep fighting. Is that CLEAR? We're gonna attack all night, we're gonna attack tomorrow morning. If we are not VICTORIOUS, let no man come back alive!"
- George C. Scott, pretending to be Gen. George S. Patton

Winning a football game isn't really important, but it's a good idea to pretend that it is if you really want to win the game. GO VOLS!

Agree with you: Patton rocks! We should run plays that gain positive yards. If it's a deep passing route down field, a crossing route, or a swing pass to the back.

My left-handed comment: Florida corners cannot play up against the run and cover our two star wideouts down the field. All three of our backs can catch the ball; swing passes to find open running lanes will be big today. go Vols!

laraccoon writes:

i have not made any predictions in this game but this is as close as ill come , and i hope i dont regret it tommorrow morning. i thint UT has the advantage in coaching staffs, especially Dooley over Muschamp . for that reason i like our chances. i guess we will see. GBO

Lizardgrad89 writes:

Wow, big fat pile of wrong in here. ROFL.

Anybody who thinks UT is really secretly better, accept the reality that you got abused by a better team that is ascending rapidly.

Oh, and Evan, since UT hasn't won in now 8 straight games a defeat would have actually been quite "unfamiliar" for UF. Fortunately, this isn't something we are going to need to worry about for at least a couple more years. Heck, Florida might win 15 straight or more in this series. That's how different the paths are for these two teams.

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