By Frank Gale
Two openers are down and one big one to go when the Vols open their SEC season tomorrow in Knoxville against the Florida Gators. That alone normally would make fans ecstatic, but that is just the tip of the story this week. The Vols are ranked for the first time since 2008 and will be playing the Gators for the second year in a row with a 2-0 record. Add College Game Day on campus in the morning and you have a Vol Walk that should be off the charts.
Sure, it is true that the Vols haven’t come closer than 10 points since 2006 but it sure felt good to get those old “Orange” juices flowing again. While older fans welcome the return of the hype, a lot of the younger fans are experiencing it for the first time. Suffice it to say, it is great to have the team that resides on Rocky Top relevant once again.
No matter the outcome tomorrow, the program has all the appearances of heading in the right direction. Of course, we know all too well that a season can turn on a dime with untimely injuries or an off-field incident which can scuttle a season.
Florida still holds the edge at 22-19 in series that started in 1916, but the Vols promise to give the reptiles all they want tomorrow. All the pre-game pageantry should have the fans in rare form and the Vols will certainly be the beneficiary of a rowdy contingent clad in Orange. Apparently, the Gator faithful are not so confident this year since they turned in a significant amount of their allotted tickets this week.
The Vols will enter the game with a new place kicker after Michael Palardy missed an extra point and a field goal against Georgia State. Granted, those points did not matter in a 51-13 blowout, but it could mean the difference tomorrow in what could be a close game. Derrick Brodus, who made his infamous debut in the MTSU game last season, will handle the place kicking duties against the Gators.
The running game still has not made a believer out of most Vol fans. Not one of the backs has been able to separate themselves from the others. Perhaps tomorrow will be the breakout game for one of the tailbacks.
Part of the shaky ground game includes the inability of the Vols to pick up the short yardage to keep drives alive. Coach Derek Dooley, clearly frustrated after the last game, stated he might just spread out the opponent and pass the ball. We’ll see how this evolves against a good Florida defense that has its strength in their front seven.
While the Vols display their talented offense before a national audience on ESPN at 6 p.m. EDT Saturday, that other SEC team that resides in Nashville will be trying to avoid going 0-3. With Presbyterian College the opponent, chances are columnist Jim Butler can finally celebrate a win. (Might want to enjoy this one Jim, the next win could be a while in coming.)
I hope that everyone in the Big Orange Nation enjoyed the week with all the anticipation surrounding the game. With Justin Hunter catching three touchdown passes last week and Tyler Bray getting all his receivers involved in the offense, the Gators will be forced to pick their poison.
The Vols have worked too hard to let this one get away. Tennessee should be able to feed off an energized crowd and keep the good feelings rolling around Big Orange Country for another week. This is a perfect time to take the “Chomp” out of the Gator faithful and show everyone what Rocky Top is all about. Go Vols!!!!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)