Offseason remarks elevate rivalry
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- WWTD
What Will Tebow Do?
Well, Football Jesus has to be counting the days, hours, minutes, seconds and nanoseconds until he can help stick an orange and blue sock into the mouth of Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has never coached a game in the Southeastern Conference, never spent quality time on The Swamp's sideline, but he made the mistake of popping off not once, but twice about Tim Tebow's Florida Gators.
And now he must pay.
You think Michael Jordan holds a grudge? Kiffin is Florida's Isiah Thomas, George Gervin, Bryon Russell, Buzz Peterson, Pat Riley, LeRoy Smith and Jerry Krause. The No. 1-ranked Gators want to chomp him into Skittles-sized pieces. Seriously, Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium can't come fast enough for Florida.
They won't come right out and say it, but Tebow & Associates would love to drop triple digits on the Vols. It all started in December when Kiffin, in his introductory news conference, said he couldn't wait to sing Rocky Top "all night long" after his team beat Florida. "It's gonna be a blast," he said.
Fine. The new coach was chirping for Vols fans. It happens.
But two months later, when Kiffin falsely accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating, this rivalry reached white-flame status, circa Steve Spurrier-Phillip Fulmer. In other words, the good ol' days.
Can new coach Lane Kiffin and Tennessee win at The Swamp? Will Tim Tebow & Co. make the Vols pay for Kiffin's offseason comments? This one will be settled on the field.
"The media, whoever, can build it up for a week," Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "[But] when 3:30 on Saturday comes, it's just a normal game. They put their pants on just like we do. They're going to try to beat us, we're going to try to beat them."
A normal game? That's like saying asparagus and champagne is a normal breakfast that Tebow is a normal quarterback. Not even Reveiz's teammates are buying the business-as-usual spin.
"It's Tennessee-Florida," center Cody Sullins said. "It's the biggest game of the year. We're all going to be fired up too. It's a personal game."
Florida hasn't wanted to beat an opponent this bad since last year's Georgia game, when it handed UGA coach Mark Richt the worst loss in his career. Reason? When the Bulldogs beat the Gators in the 2007 Cocktail Party, they celebrated one of their touchdowns with a full-team pile-on in the end zone. Tebow made them pay a season later. Florida won 49-10, and, just for fun, Meyer called a pair of timeouts in the last 44 seconds.
So now that Florida's exhibition season is finished (wins against the College of Chumps and the University of Nobodies), the Gators can turn their full attention to buying pins for their Kiffin voodoo dolls. They've outscored Charleston Southern and Troy by a combined 118-9 and have converted 70 percent of their third-down conversions and 90 percent of their red zone touchdown tries (9 of 10). Opponents have scored exactly zero touchdowns compared with Florida's 17.
And now the really terrifying part of the equation: In the Gators' opener, Tebow took his last snap at the 7:55 mark of the second quarter. This past Saturday, he was getting a mani/pedi on the bench by the 8:28 mark of the third quarter. Just wait until he puts in a full day of work.
Kiffin said the Gators are "by far, the most talented team in the country." Hey, at last Kiffin and Florida agree on something.
Florida has Tebow and national championship two-peat vibes. Meanwhile, Vols fans spent parts of their afternoon at Neyland Stadium this past Saturday booing UT's offense. Senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton took most of the heat, which is what happened last season, too.
Crompton completed 21 of 28 passes for 233 yards and five touchdowns in the Vols' opener. But that was a laugher win against Western Kentucky. In the loss to UCLA, Crompton was 13-of-26 for 93 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Crompton has five INTs in two games.
"Our plan was to stop their run," UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter said. "If they couldn't run, they couldn't win."
Ouch. And did we mention that Kiffin detected finger-pointing among his players after the UCLA loss?
"You don't win that way," he said.
One of Tennessee's strengths is its offensive line, yet UCLA sacked Crompton three times and recorded a total of eight tackles for losses. Tennessee's defense held UCLA to 186 yards, but the Bruins were able to get around the edges (and UT's defensive ends) more than a few times. If UCLA can turn the corner, so can Florida.
Legendary Monte Kiffin, Tennessee's defensive coordinator, is a coverage and scheme genius. But the bottom line is that a redshirt freshman quarterback (Kevin Prince) found enough soft spots against Kiffin's defense to be effective. And maybe it means something, maybe not, but I looked up the Tampa Bay Bucs' record since 2001 when facing a mobile, Tebow-like quarterback. Monte Kiffin was the Bucs' longtime D-coordinator.
The numbers: 11-8 (0-1 versus Kordell Stewart, 3-1 versus Daunte Culpepper, 3-1 versus Donovan McNabb, 5-4 versus Michael Vick, 0-1 versus JaMarcus Russell). Here's guessing Kiffin spent part of the offseason drawing X's and O's on napkins as he thought about the Sept. 19 game against Tebow. He'll have a scheme. Whether Tebow renders it useless is another matter.
Florida has won 12 consecutive games (which ties a school record) since its loss to Ole Miss last September. Tennessee has won zero in a row and has never beaten Meyer since he began coaching the Gators in 2005. And that was before Kiffin insulted Meyer and his program.
"Yeah, that's just something we've got to go down there and handle," Sullins said.
Sounds simple. It won't be.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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