published Saturday, September 17th, 2011

Vols avoiding this-is-it notion

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The stakes include a possible Top 25 ranking for the first time in three years, more national respect, the end of a long losing streak and a 1-0 start in the challenging Southeastern Conference.

There's plenty on the line for Tennessee against 16th-ranked Florida this afternoon, but the Volunteers can't put any more importance on the annual September showdown than any of the other 11 games on the schedule.

"What are you going to do the next week?" coach Derek Dooley asked rhetorically.

Make no mistake, it's an important chance for the Vols in many respects, including giving Dooley his first "signature win" and breaking a six-year losing streak to the Gators. Dooley said earlier in the week, though, that it's simply the next game, and that's the approach his players say they're taking.

"It's really important, [but] you have to take it game by game," said senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson. "This game is a championship game in our mind. The next game is going to be, too. We just have to keep working. Every game is a one-game season."

This particular game, though, is an early indicator for two young teams under new coaching staffs. Florida has 33 freshmen and sophomores on its two-deep chart, and the Vols have 31.

It's the first big game for Florida coach Will Muschamp as he succeeds Urban Meyer, who went a combined 16-2 against UT, Georgia and Florida State, the Gators' main three rivals. After letting a road win at LSU slip away last season, Dooley still is looking for his first big win.

"Every win counts, but it's that one game you want to have, that signature win," said junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner. "I think this could be that signature win for us."

UT's freshmen and sophomores were in middle school the last time the Vols beat Florida in 2004, and many of them have never played a game at Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. But they're aware of what this rivalry was before Florida's winning streak and what it means in the SEC East Division standings every year.

"Florida's a great team, and it's always been like Tennessee-Florida, I feel like that sets the factor [of] which two of us are going to go to the SEC championship game, or have the opportunity to," said sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith from Ooltewah, who noted that UT reached the conference title game the last time it beat Florida. "Playing a team like Florida, that's definitely a test to let you know if you're a good team or not."

Dooley acknowledged that today's game won't make or break either team's season, and both have brutal October schedules. UT faces Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, and Florida plays Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. A win could be a springboard, however.

"This is a huge game for us," senior linebacker Austin Johnson said. "If we win this game it gives us a ton of confidence going further into the season. I just think it comes down to how we approach it. We approach it like every other game, and we'll play like every other game.

"[If] we can come out victorious, it's definitely going to set the tone and create some excitement around here."

As much excitement as a win would bring, there still will be nine games left on the schedule.

"It's a big football game," Dooley said. "When you only have 12, they're all big. This is a big one. It's a big rival. We hadn't played well against them. It's going to mean a lot.

"If you're going to compete for the SEC, you've got to go down there and beat them."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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