The Florida Gators struggled to a 2-0 start, but the season hadn't really started until today. Because now, the pushover teams are gone, and SEC play is in session. And with a dominant performance over Georgia Saturday, Steve Spurrier and South Carolina proved the SEC East won't be a cake walk for the Gators this year.
As always, the Gators begin their SEC schedule against Tennessee, but as has been the trend the past few years, it's a different Volunteer team than last year's. But for the third year in a row, the Volunteers come into the encounter with a 1-1 record, already having faced a tough, non-conference opponent, this year being No. 5 Oregon.
Tennessee may be just as unranked as either Miami (Ohio) or University of South Florida, the Gators' first two opponents, but it's an all together different animal.
Last week, the Volunteers put up a fight for the first half against Oregon to give everyone at Neyland Stadium some cause for celebration, and really they made it competitive for 25 more minutes than anyone was expecting. The game virtually ended when Oregon tied the score at 13 at the end of the first and took over completely for the entire second half.
Florida had almost the opposite game down in Gainesville. USF ran all over the Gators' defense on its opening drive to score a touchdown, and the Gators' shaky offense almost sent them into half time without any points for the first time in years. But in the last minute of the half, an interception led to a quick touchdown to even the scores, and after that the Gators were rolling, thanks in large part to running back Jeff Demps who had 255 all-purpose yards. They capitalized on Bull's turnovers to win 38-14 and cover up a still maturing offense, but snaps and ball handling certainly improved from week one.
But the Gators can't afford a shaky first half at Neyland Stadium, even if they are the better team. Tennessee is a team of beginners. From quarterback Matt Simms to the offensive line to first-year head coach Derek Dooley, it is a team lacking SEC experience. But last year, with Lane Kiffin at the helm and an experienced yet clearly not overly talented team except for Eric Berry, the Vols came to the Swamp and pushed the Gators all the way to edge. And even after all of Kiffin's talk, his team came out with more to say for itself after the defending National Champion Gators could only muster a 23-13 victory.
The second half of both games last weekend could be a foreshadowing of this weekend's showdown. The Gator's picked it up and got things going and showed they could learn and adjust during half time. The Vols showed that they might just be riding their luck in big games this season.
Either way, the past two games don't matter much for either team now. Now is when Florida shows Tim Tebow's departure actually doesn't make a difference and Tennessee shows they can shake things up a bit. This is the game that matters for Florida who wants to continue it's four-year dominance of the SEC East and Tennessee who just wants to be relevant again. And there's no better way to achieve either than by beating one of your biggest rivals and surprising everyone in the process.