Sept. 16, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
It's Week 3 of the season. Simple as that.
Sure, it's a big rivalry week as the Vols, who travel to Gainesville to play No. 16 Florida on Saturday (TV: CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET) in the SEC opener for both teams. Since the conference split into two divisions in 1992, this game has routinely had championship implications.
For many young Vols, though, this weekend will be their first trip to The Swamp.
"I've heard it's a great place to play, really," sophomore center James Stone said. "I haven't been down there myself, so I'm not sure what to expect. I haven't heard a lot, but I expect it to be loud."
Battling the crowd noise is always a factor in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gator-chomping fans, the Florida fight song and the humid weather are a dreaded combination for any team. Tennessee's players who have yet to be inside those dark orange walls on game day, however, take it as just another challenge.
"I like away games a lot because I feel like we come together more as a team, especially in the huddle," said offensive lineman Ju'Waun James, who has started all 15 games of his career. "All these people around us don't care about us and want to see us lose, so we try to come together to get a win. When we go out there and play for each other, it's a good feeling."
James hasn't played in The Swamp, but he has seen a game there while on a recruiting visit two years ago.
"It's different," he said with a grin. "It's loud, but it's just a different feeling. I was looking at it differently back then, but now that I play for Tennessee, I feel like I want to go down there and get a win. The fans are there Gator chomping. I feel like that should motivate us."
What head coach Derek Dooley doesn't want is for Tennessee's players to get too hyped up about the rivalry game.
Tennessee heads into Saturday's game with a 2-0 record for the first time since 2006. The Vols opened with a 42-16 victory against FCS school Montana, then exploded again last weekend for a 45-23 victory against Cincinnati. The Gators have won a couple lopsided games as well, pounding Florida Atlantic, 41-3, and UAB, 39-0.
Dooley, in fact, said this week is time for Tennessee to play big boy ball.
"This is going to be our first big test for a lot of reasons," Dooley said. "Everything is different when you're on the road. It's going to be the first time some of these guys get on a plane. All the routine is different. They won't be sleeping at the same hotel they're used to on Friday nights. The meals are going to taste a little different. There will be a bus ride in the morning going to the game. So everything is different. How you handle those things when you get out of that routine can affect you."
Dooley then pointed to playing the Gators in their own house as the major concern.
The Tennessee-Florida rivalry has been one-sided lately. The Gators have won the past six games in the series. The Vols last win against the Gators was in 2004, and they haven't won in Gainesville since 2003.
Fortunately for Tennessee, nobody on this team cares much about the past.
"You've got to go down there, and you can't be scared," Dooley said. "You've got to be prepared mentally, and you can't be held hostage to anything that's happened in the past. That's how we're going to approach it."
Don't expect fear to be packed in the luggage this weekend.
Tennessee has gotten major production from a trio of sophomores on offense: quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. The confidence from those three and the rest of the younger players on the team is what Dooley wants from his guys when they get off the bus Saturday.
"They're a confident group, and I like that," Dooley said. "They expect to be good. But like a lot of young players, they don't have a lot of scars on them. What I don't want to do is put my own scars on them and it breaks their spirit. But at the same time, I don't want to sit there and tell them they're great because they'll get their tails whipped.
"So far, they've been doing pretty good. I don't want to mess them up. Sometimes I wonder if they even know they're not in the backyard just playing."
Still, as Tennessee fans plan for one of the most anticipated matchups of the season in their eyes, Dooley is putting blinders on his team. He wants his young guys seeing nothing but the task at hand - because it's just another game.
"It's the third game and the first SEC game," Dooley said. "We could win down there and then get shellacked the next six weeks in a row, or we could lose down there and then play great the next six weeks in a row. I don't believe in, if we win this game we're going to get hot and take off, or if we lose the season is over. That has no place in my coaching.
"It's the next game, and we're going to go play it to win. If you approach it any differently than that, you're going to be an emotional wreck, I think."