Florida-Tennessee: Chris Rainey's Arrest Affects Gators Big Time
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The No. 10 Florida Gators were feeling good about their season Sunday morning.
They had overcome an awful showing in their season opener against the Miami (OH) RedHawks, and they defeated a respectable Big East foe in the South Florida Bulls with a dominant second-half performance.
Center Mike Pouncey's snapping problem had been fixed; running back Jeff Demps had racked up 255 all-purpose yards against the Bulls; and the defense had recorded eight interceptions in just two games.
Granted, Florida dropped two more places in the AP Poll. The new rankings had them at No. 10, but the Gators were overrated to begin the season, so it was no big deal.
Even the mild-mannered Urban Meyer was feeling good. He thrust his hands up in the air and flashed a huge grin after a late touchdown against USF.
But all that momentum came crashing down early Tuesday morning.
Slot receiver Chris Rainey, one of the team's most talented and vocal players, was arrested on an aggravated stalking charge after sending a threatening text message to his former girlfriend.
Rainey has since been suspended indefinitely and will be replaced by fellow wide receiver Omarius Hines against the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday.
The Rainey arrest took his teammates by surprise, particularly Demps, who wrote on his Twitter : "I don't know what got into Chris that night but I know that aint the Rainey i know.."
Since the news of the arrest broke, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio has said that Rainey "is not a part of our team right now" and Meyer believes Florida's "got some guys that can still make plays."
Luckily, the Gators have good depth in their roster, which will allow them to plug a good receiver, like Hines, into the hole left by Rainey. However, recovering from the mental blow of Rainey's suspension is another story.
With Rainey's arrest, the Gators have had 30 players face misdemeanor or felony charges during Urban Meyer's tenure in Gainesville.
Those players have been disciplined. The team has moved on from every one of those arrests. But each one takes its toll in the locker room.
How in-sync can a team be if one of its leaders makes a death threat via text message?
The Gators were still trying to form a team identity at the time of Rainey's arrest, and they badly needed someone to step up.
Granted, Florida has several veterans capable of leadership, but when Rainey left, he took the team's morale with him.
Rainey said that the team was free of "prima donnas."
And then he became one.
Florida heads to Knoxville this weekend to face Tennessee in their SEC opener. On paper, the Gators should win comfortably.
However, certain variables, such as the impact of Rainey's arrest, do not show up on paper.
Another variable that could hurt Florida is that the Volunteers are both angry and motivated. While Derek Dooley's team is certainly not the most talented squad to take the field at Neyland Stadium, they want to make a statement.
They were dumped by Lane Kiffin after just one season. This left the program in disarray and scrambling to recover in time to save their recruiting class.
They were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East at the SEC Media Days, just ahead of lowly Vanderbilt.
The Volunteers were embarrassed on their home turf in a 48-13 beat down by the No. five Oregon Ducks last weekend; it was their worst defensive showing since their 59-20 loss to Florida in 2007.
Most notably, they have lost to the Gators five consecutive times by an average deficit of 16.3 points per game. They're out for revenge against their hated SEC rival.
As the first two games of the season have shown, Florida is prone to slow starts and mental errors. With Rainey's arrest weighing on their minds, the Gators will be vulnerable to a raucous crowd at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee will be focused, energized, and ready to play at kickoff come Saturday.
The question is: will Florida be ready?
Follow Joe Morgan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/joe_morgan
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