Big game in town

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

With no regard for big-game week, another problem has popped up.

Florida, winner of 12 of the past 13 games against Tennessee, is far, far ahead in the newest university rankings by U.S. News and World Report.

Rankings per U.S. News & World Report.

This has little to do with football but it could cause a serious inferiority complex. How will UT students protest without hand fans to sail onto the field?

“Stop worrying about distractions,” said Chester W. Henderlight, one of my favorite followers of the Volunteers. “Jeremy doesn’t read U.S. News and World Report.”

(To those comfortably acquainted with Coach Pruitt, he is Jeremy.)

Even though he is from Alabama, he no doubt cares deeply about university comparisons, diversity, social settings, hi-fi availability, strength of faculty and even Pell grants – but not right now.

Jeremy’s immediate focus is on overall Volunteer improvement, competitiveness, consistency and a sharp reduction in penalties and turnovers. That applies to all who play on offense, defense and special teams.

Until further notice, Florida is his game of the year. The Gators were much better against Colorado State than were the Vols against UTEP. This one demands almost all of his attention.

If he can find a spare minute, Jeremy will salute the 1998 national champion Tennessee team. Phillip Fulmer’s undefeated Vols will be honored on Friday evening at a private dinner and again on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

The choice of this date for this celebration didn’t just happen. The overtime victory over the Gators 20 years ago was pivotal then and a reminder now that nothing comparable has happened lately. Oh how we need another Al Wilson to set the tone.

There were other differences between then and now. The Sporting News was certain about the 1998 outcome.

“Not even the most diehard Vol fan thinks they have a shot against Florida.”

The Gators were favored but no shot was a stretch. Both teams were better then. Excitement was off the charts.

When Collins Cooper (now a judge) missed the field-goal attempt in overtime, a small earthquake struck the stadium. I do believe the press box actually bounced. Soon thereafter goal posts tumbled down.

Gators are again favored but the buzz is far less this time. Like Tennessee, Florida remains a mystery.

That has not inhibited TV talking heads. Greg McElroy said he believes the Gators will win “convincingly.” David Pollack and Paul Finebaum said it would be a good thing if the Vols are just competitive.

There are some Florida uncertainties. It lost star cornerback Marco Wilson to a season-ending knee injury. We assume the void has been properly filled.

Suspensions from the summer encounter with professional gamblers (that involved an air rifle painted to look like an AK-15 and a frying pan displayed threateningly as a head-knocker) have allegedly been served.

Can you visualize a Florida football player waving a cast-iron skillet?

The absolute certainty that new coach Dan Mullen would transform last year’s disappointment into an immediate success has developed a few doubters. Losing to Kentucky in Gainesville was disillusioning.

The previous time the Gators lost to the Wildcats, gas was selling for 90 cents and Mullen was a 14-year-old freshman at a New Hampshire high school.

Tennessee questions persist. Will the offensive line be ready to play soon after kickoff? Is the secondary semi-secure? Can the Vols avoid self-destruction?

However important you think this game is in the overall scheme of things, double it. Never should a September clash be so out of proportion in significance but this outcome may determine how you forever view this season.

This is Tennessee’s first best chance to make a mark. What follows is really difficult.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is

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