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Gators and Vols rivalry still fun, but significance is diminished

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With Florida State and Miami enjoying a bye week, the Florida Gators receive added attention as they host the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday. Despite the rebuilding still going on at both schools, it is a rivalry game that still attracts national attention.

There was a time not that long ago when the winner of this game was the odds-on favorite to represent the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference in the SEC Championship Game. Unfortunately for the Vols, the Gators have dominated the series since the league created the championship game.

Beginning with that first game in 1992, either Tennessee or Florida played in the title game every year for 10 years. Florida appeared seven times and Tennessee three. Only the 1992 Gators and the 1997 Volunteers overcame a regular season loss to their rival to play for the conference championship.

Since 2001, Tennessee has played for the title only twice (losing both times), while Florida has appeared three times (winning twice). The winner of Saturday’s game between the two unranked teams will not be favored to advance to the title game unless that team can also get by Georgia or Missouri or both.

The Gators will try to knock off Tennessee for the 10th consecutive season. During the streak, the Volunteers have come within a touchdown only twice.

It appeared the Vols were in control of last year’s game in Knoxville, leading 9-0 in the fourth quarter. Former Head Coach Will Muschamp replaced a struggling Jeff Driskel at quarterback with Freshman Treon Harris, who led the Gators to 10 points and the 10-9 victory.

If the Gators struggle on Saturday, Harris will not be there to come out of the bullpen. He was suspended for the game, along with cornerback Jalen Tabor. Redshirt Freshman Will Grier will start while Tennessee will send out Junior Joshua Dobbs.

Neither team has a passing game that instills a great deal of fear among opponents. Florida ranks in the middle of the conference in passing yards, while Tennessee is 11th.

The Vols’ running game, ranked third in the SEC and 17th nationally, will challenge Florida’s rushing defense, ranked best in the SEC and seventh nationally. The Gators’ total defense is ranked Number 11 in the nation and second in the SEC. Tennessee is ranked Number 78 nationally and 12th in the SEC in that category.

Florida’s lack of quarterback depth for this game seems to be offset by its defense, according to odds makers. The Gators are three-point favorites to extend its streak and win for the 18th time in the last 22 games. St. Petersblog’s Gary Shelton disagrees and predicts a Tennessee win.

Other Notes: Even with all of their recent struggles, the Gators still own a 38-4 record in the month of September since 2005. Five of those wins are against Tennessee.

UT Running Backs Coach Robert Gillespie was a four-year letterman for the Gators from 2001-05.

The Tennessee players have little experience in Gainesville. Only 12 of those on the Volunteer travel squad played in the last game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in 2013.

Both teams are young. Tennessee plays 17 true freshman (not starters), while Florida has only six seniors on scholarship.

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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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