KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - With Tennessee earning its first national ranking since 2008 and ESPN's College GameDay heading to town, the excitement in the air at Rocky Top is palpable as the 23rd-ranked Vols get set to host No. 18 Florida on Saturday.
As his team begins its preparations for the Gators, UT head coach Derek Dooley made sure the players knew that they are deserving of all of the attention, but stressed the importance of not getting caught up in the hype and losing focus on what got them to this point, especially with such a talented opponent looming on the horizon.
"We have our work cut out for us," Dooley said. "I told the team that they have earned the right to get some of the attention that they've been getting by how they've preformed the last couple of weeks and that's good. That's what we should get, but now we have to earn the right to continue getting it and earn the right to play well by how we prepare this week."
As much as the Vols enjoy seeing their name in the national rankings, Dooley simply sees it as a byproduct of the process the program has followed. Instead of being satisfied with being ranked, the Big Orange will continue to plug away like it does every day.
"We have some basic program standards that we have kind of established that I think all the Tennessee fans expect," Dooley said. "Certainly, at Tennessee we want to be in the top 25 like a hundred other teams, but you can't be in it if you don't keep winning. If you are focused on being on the top 25 and not what you need to do to be in the top 25, then you aren't going to be in the top 25."
Despite all of the extra media coverage and added excitement that comes with playing a heated rival at home on national television, Dooley expects his players will be able to handle the challenge.
"The preparation builds each day," Dooley said. "It is so important that our team keeps its focus on what it needs to do to play well this week and not all of the external drama that is certainly going to be there.
"It depends on your level of maturity and your experience in that situation. This will be a little new for us but it's good. I think our players will handle it fine. This is where you want to be. [Our players] didn't come to Tennessee to not be in a big game, on a big stage on game day. That's why they came here. It shouldn't really have any impact on preparation, any impact on focus. The only impact it has is for the fans."
BRODUS EARNS PROMOTIONAfter some early-season struggles, the Vols have made a change at the placekicker position with head coach Derek Dooley announcing that junior Derrick Brodus will handle the field goal duties against Florida.
While Dooley remains confident in the talent and ability of Michael Palardy, he felt that Brodus had performed well enough in both practice and last week's game against Georgia State to earn the opportunity.
"I still believe in Mike but he has some things he needs to work through and Derrick has certainly earned the right to be out there," Dooley said. ""It's really no different than the other positions, it is performance-based and it is my responsibility as the coach. If I feel like another guy is more deserving and gives us a better chance to get through the game then that's what we are going to do. I don't know if it is the right one. We'll see, time will tell.
Brodus, who made national headlines last season after being called off his couch just hours before UT's game against MTSU and making a field goal and two extra points, has impressed Dooley with his consistency, poise and accuracy during practice. He also made his second career field goal, a 25-yarder, against Georgia State last week.
"He's made every kick every time he's been out there and he kicks it high," Dooley said. "He has a nice calm about him but we'll see."
IT ALL STARTS UP FRONTThe Tennessee football players know and head coach Derek Dooley emphasized that making big plays on defense all starts up front.
The four interceptions that UT had against NC State and the one that was added last Saturday against Georgia State were all thanks in part to pressure on the quarterback.
"I think it is fair to say, you look at the top defenses in the country and it starts up front," said Dooley. "You look at the teams that have consistently played pretty good defense in our league over the last three or four years and it starts up front. It is not just that they have a few guys up front that are good. It is that they are deep, they are able to go four quarters, and they are able to make game changing plays in the second half."
Against Georgia State, the Vols made those game-changing plays, hurrying quarterback Ben McLane 10 times. McLane found himself on the ground even more than that throughout the game.
This was all thanks to the pressure up front. A pressure that the Vols hope to carry into their game with Florida.
"We watched film and [Jeff Driskel] is a pretty good mobile quarterback," said Marlon Walls. "He can move around a little bit and that makes our job a little harder. We have to keep him in the pocket. I think the best way is to go after him. If you sit back and let the guy throw the ball around, he is a pretty good passer too. Our philosophy is to go out there and get him and try our best to get after that guy."
JACK linebacker Jacques Smith believes that the pressure will be even more turned up against Florida than it already has been this season.
"I know Sal is probably going to be throwing a lot of things at us to get us there," said Smith. "We're just ready to play sound defense every single play and be disciplined this week."
Another factor that will add to the intensity of the game is the return of College GameDay to Rocky Top. The players know that the loud crowd will be a huge element in bull rushing the offensive line.
"It's exciting to have College GameDay come to your town," said Smith. "I knew the stadium was going to be packed regardless, it's Florida-Tennessee, it's tradition. We're just excited. It's just another stage for us to show our talent and how good we are as a team. We definitely have matured."
But the players also know that they can't lose focus amidst all the hoopla on campus.
"It doesn't mean nothing if we don't go out there and handle our business," said Walls. "As quick as you are in the top-25, you can be out of it even quicker. This game is important to us because over the year's we haven't done so well against Florida and this team right here we are driven right now. Not because of the rankings and College GameDay. Because it's Florida. We are looking forward to bringing the tradition back. We are prepared for a tough game and we are ready for it. It is going to be an exciting thing and it is a challenge for us to compete against a pretty good team. We are excited."
The Vols have lost seven-straight to Florida. And you better believe they are all ready for that streak to snap.
Since last year we wanted to beat them," said Maurice Couch, "and as a team we know what we have to do. We have a different mindset from last year and we are more united as a team. We have to practice hard and go in and execute our plan."
Sticking to the game plan will be the key to success for the Vols, who have slipped a few times in years past.
"For the last few games [against Florida], it has not been what they were doing it was what we were doing," said Walls. "There were guys making mistakes and we all weren't on the same page. I think we are more on that page this year. With this defense it takes time and we are starting to get that down as far as looking for the calls, knowing what to do and knowing certain signals. We are getting better at that aspect and as long as we get that down we can be a pretty good defense. We are moving in that direction."
GAME TIME SET FOR AKRONTennessee will play under the lights at Neyland Stadium once again next week as the start time for its Sept. 22 home game against Akron has been set for 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
The contest, which will be televised on CSS, will be UT's second 7:30 p.m. start this season and third night game in 2012. The Vols are 1-0 all-time vs. Akron, having won the lone meeting between the schools, 52-9, in 1989 at Neyland Stadium.
REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAYWith linebackers Curt Maggitt (toe) and Herman Lathers (shoulder) still listed as questionable and day-to-day, the Vols got a much needed boost this week as redshirt freshman Christian Harris is set to officially return to the practice field.
While he may not quite be ready to contribute on game day as he returns from a torn ACL, Harris provides the Vols with a little more depth at a critical position.
"Christian Harris will be activated," Dooley said. "I'm not saying he is going to play or be ready, but he is now out there and working with the defense. We need him because we are so thin at inside linebacker."
Vol fans can also expect to see another new face suited up against Florida on Saturday as Alton "Pig" Howard will don the number two for the Orange and White for the first time.
The offensive playmaker will likely become the 10th true freshman to hit the field for UT this season as he will get an opportunity at wide receiver.
"Pig Howard is activated and we'll see how much we can get out of him," Dooley said. "We need him, especially in the slot."