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Irma not stopping Saturday’s Gators vs. Vols rivalry game

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With the welcome news that I-75 north of Gainesville will not close due to the flooding of the Santa Fe River, returning evacuees will now have a clearer path home. Traveling Tennessee Volunteer fans and some Florida Gator fans will also have an easier time getting to The Swamp for Saturday’s game between the two rivals.

With U.S. Highways 41 and 27 still closed, a nightmarish detour was averted.

“We were lucky with the Santa Fe over I-75,” said Leo Lachat, the State Emergency Response Team Chief during a Thursday morning briefing. “That was a blessing to us (Wednesday) night to not have to close that bridge.”

Road-tripping Volunteer backers would have had plenty to gripe about as they approached Florida. Now the hard-to-please section can shift their focus entirely toward joining some former players and sports columnist in griping about their team.

The 2-0 Vols put up 42 points in both of their victories, but after allowing 41 points (and 665 yards of offense) against Georgia Tech and “underperforming” in a 35-point win over Indiana State, fans, sports columnists, and some former players do not like the defensive scheme.

Former Tennessee and NFL defensive end Albert Haynesworth predicts “We will have the worst rush defense in the SEC!!” Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams believes Tennessee’s “million-dollar defensive coordinatorBob Shoop should be fired immediately if the Gators put up big offensive numbers on Saturday.

Shoop hopes for a traffic jam in Florida’s offensive backfield, but if not, he may be forced to answer a lot of questions. If the Gators can score enough points to win, especially since they will again be playing without their two biggest offensive threats (and 7 other players), wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett, he could hard-pressed to explain that to their die-hard fans.

At the same time, he predicts “the temperature would rise” for Florida Coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier if the Gator offense turns in a performance similar to the embarrassing show against Michigan. Even with the missing Gators, better quarterback play could go a long way toward keeping them in the game.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones is confident going into Saturday’s game and says his players are as well. He recalled his first trip to Gainesville in 2013 and came away with the feeling his players did not believe they could win. That is not the case this week.

“The first time we went in there, our players, I don’t think, had a full belief they could win the football game,” Jones told the News Sentinel. “The last time we went in there, we fully believed we’d win the football game.”

They almost did, but Callaway’s 63-yeard TD reception capped a huge comeback and gave the Gators their 11th straight win in the series, 28-27. Tennessee finally broke the hex with last year’s 28-18 win in Knoxville. Jones says he is “expecting to win” on Saturday.

Despite the missing Gator players and the Vols holding a one-game winning streak in the series, odds makers have installed Florida as a 5-point favorite. Kickoff at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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