This week, the Tennessee Volunteers travel to Gainesville to play in what most anticipate to be one of the more hostile environments college football has ever seen. After some controversial comments from Lane Kiffin regarding Florida, the Gator fanbase is charged and ready to welcome the first-year coach to the Swamp in a rude way.
It's not uncommon for Tennessee—or any visitor, for that matter—to be the underdog when it travels to Florida. This season, however, the Vols are a 29-point underdog coming off an unexpected loss to UCLA.
No one that I know can remember the Vols ever being this large of a dog, even on the road. The clips being repeated on ESPN and other networks of Kiffin's December 2008 comments are quickly followed by lofty picks and comments on how ugly the game could get.
With disappointment undoubtedly filling the Vol locker room after the UCLA loss, that certainly was followed by uncertainty of whether they could actually compete with the mighty Gators.
As this week has progressed, we've heard some of the players and coaches talk about this week's game and the intensity surrounding this rivalry. We've heard the players be asked about what seem to be insurmountable odds, only to be reminded that 18- to 22-year-old young men don't seem to scare as easy as some might think.
Junior defensive end Chris Walker: "We are going to defend our coach by the way we play. We don't have to do all this talking and stuff. We are just going to go out there and play a sound football game.
"It's Florida, which is one of our biggest rivals, and that is enough motivation. But to see the lack for respect that people have towards us and no one is giving us a chance. That is something that's really going to motivate us. That's what they think. We just have to go out there and prove people wrong."
Senior linebacker Rico McCoy: "I know my team is going to be ready to play. I'm confident. I hear the stuff about them not taking knees, not taking timeouts, you know if we leave ourselves in that situation, go ahead and do it. If you can do it, do it. But you know, we're ready to play. We're going to fight until that last second is off the clock."
In the South, most fanbases are rabid and obsessive. No matter the odds, fans are like players: They want to find a way to believe there's a reason to be excited—that there's no such thing as "no hope."
The Vols have serious quarterback problems. The offensive line is hurt and thin. The team and fanbase are reeling from a home loss to UCLA that almost no one saw coming, taking almost all momentum created in the offseason away from the program.
So what can a fan fall back on?
On Oct. 6, 2007, first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh took his Stanford Cardinal football team on the road to play the mighty USC Trojans. USC boasted a 35-game home win streak and a roster infinitely more talented than Stanford, at least on paper.
The Cardinal had QB issues of their own. Their starter was out after having a seizure the week of the game, so Stanford was piloted by a backup, Tavita Pritchard.
Prior to this game, USC was the No. 2-ranked team in the nation, favored in the game by 41 points, and Stanford was coming off a 41-3 home loss to Arizona State. New coach Harbaugh had some very flattering comments for the Trojans.
"There is no question in my mind that USC is the best team in the country and may be the best team in the history of college football," Harbaugh said the week before the game. "As a sort of college football historian, there's no question that this SC team ranks right up there."
On a day where Stanford was outgained by a total of 459 to 235 and their quarterback didn't overwhelm, going 11-of-30 for 149 yards, one TD, and one INT, the Cardinal upset USC 24-23. The defense forced four John David Booty interceptions and a fumble, and the offense only turned it over once.
I'm sure you are thinking, "What's the point?"
Kiffin's comments on Sept. 15, 2009 in preparation for Florida:
"They're extremely talented. I look at their defense, look at their 11 starters, and I think you have 11 NFL players. I would think they're maybe the most talented defense to ever play and maybe the best quarterback to ever play college football. We're going to have our hands full."
There's no doubt that Tennessee and Kiffin are backed into a corner. Everyone outside the Vol Nation, and some inside, are counting them out, telling them they have no shot.
Do you think Stanford fans felt they had any shot?
Their players did. The Vols players do. Hearing a resilient Chris Walker, Eric Berry, and Rico McCoy should remind everyone that no matter bad things seem, these guys never quit.
Kiffin has insisted he has a plan and that plan will continue on its correct path, no matter the result of any games this season. Kiffin continues to also try to instill confidence in his surely shaky football team and downplay the importance of this week's game.
The comments of the coach and players could lead one to the conclusion that Tennessee will go into the worst environment possible and play as if they are a Stanford or Appalachian State playing on the road at some great big school that dwarfs them.
We can all sit around and talk about how Florida has Tennessee outmanned all we want and until we are blue in the face, sure. Or, we can acknowledge that Tennessee's roster is full of athletes who won't quit, who will continue to work hard and will go to Florida with the intention of winning a football game.
The odds are in Florida's favor. Kiffin is playing with a roster full of guys he didn't ask for, some I'm sure he'll be glad to replace with "his" kind of player. But rest assured that since this coach and these players have been backed into the same corner, they'll come out swinging together.
For Florida fans, assuming the win and possible blowout is easy to do. For Tennessee fans, fearing that same scenario is as equally easy to do.
It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss this as some celebration of Florida football over some weakling who just wants a paycheck. Urban Meyer is a smart coach, but he'd be well served to remember Stanford. He'd be well served to remind his players that they will not be playing Charleston Southern on Saturday.
After a heartbreaking loss to UCLA and every media outlet in the nation picking them to be destroyed this week, the Vols are backed into a corner. They have nothing to lose, just like Stanford and then-first year coach Jim Harbaugh.
Despite the odds, against all odds, the fanbase has rallied after a loss, striving to support a team that needs its support. It will truly be Tennessee and its fans backed into a corner against the world on Saturday at 3:30 PM EST.
Kiffin and his Vols will come out swinging.
Writer's note: Quotes for this article were taken from UTSports.com and ESPN.com.