published Saturday, September 21st, 2013

Greeson: UT, Auburn games measuring sticks

We head into a college football weekend of blah so staggering that ESPN's "College Football Gameday" is at North Dakota State. On purpose, even. Do you think Lee Corso even knows where North Dakota is? Sure he does: It's just above South Dakota, of course.

It wasn't always this way. This used to belong to a couple of SEC intradivisional games that established league front-runners and quite frequently potential national contenders.

Tennessee-Florida for years was the first national elimination game between two serious challengers. That now seems like forever ago. There are grade-school kids who never have known a Volunteers win over Florida.

One team is still searching for a starting quarterback; one team is wishful for a decent starting wide receiver. Each is longing for the glory days when NFL playmakers were waiting in the wings for their chances on a stage with the nation watching.

The stage is the same -- the Swamp will be hot and loud -- and the Gators have a defense littered with NFL talent that will look familiar to those fans who flip to CBS today as much out of habit as anticipation.

While the stakes are muted nationally, there are magnitude and meaning to be had here. There is an opportunity to be seized, and whether it is or not, there will be perspective added.

In fact, there are two SEC games this week that are not as meaningful as they once were, but with a loud whisper each will serve as an extreme measuring stick for a first-year coach.

Butch Jones and the Tennessee Vols are 17-point underdogs at Florida. Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers are 17.5-point underdogs at LSU. Giddy-up.

Butch and Co. had a Custer-sized chance heading across the country and facing an Oregon team that is going to pants a lot of folks. That loss was more about Oregon than Tennessee, and even those with the deepest tinted orange glasses can buy that.

Today is different, though. Even as a 17-point underdog, Tennessee is playing a Florida program that has tortured Vols fans for a generation. And this is not exactly a Florida juggernaut, especially offensively.

This is a Florida team that worked to beat Toledo 24-6. Oregon making the scorekeeper's head spin is a weekly occurrence, but getting embarrassed today by a team that is assembled more for hand-to-hand combat than high-wire theatrics would sting twice as badly.

Perception is only part of it. There comes a moment when each new coach pushes his chips and lands a blow for his new team that resonates with his team and his fan base. It jumpstarts the program and expedites the brick-by-bricking. Land a knockout blow against a superior foe, and the credibility will grow. As will the passion.

Neither the Vols nor the Tigers seem equipped to win at Florida or LSU. Jones and Tennessee are offensively challenged and defensively thin. It's the most frustrating of circumstances and the byproduct of turmoil and turnover.

Whether those are rationalizations, reasons or excuses varies because of your view. The ultimate fact is Tennessee's program and those that love it need something positive on which to lean. Sure, the promising collection of recruits Jones is assembling carries the potential promise of a brighter tomorrow, but the darkness of today -- and the eight-year cloud that has been the Florida series -- is getting old.

For Auburn and Malzahn, today's opposition is tougher, so the fact that the visiting Tigers are the same long shots as the Vols screams that Vegas believes Malzahn's club is further along than the Jones gang.

A large part of that perception has to be the positive steps Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall has made in the first three weeks and the stagnation of UT counterpart Justin Worley to the point that the Vols were re-auditioning for the part of QB1 this week.

Still, for each new coach at a program starving for improvement in the cutthroat realm that is the SEC, today is a fair litmus test. Winning is the ultimate goal, but passing the eye test in hostile enviroments against more talented opposition is the first step for Tennessee and the next step for Auburn.

Improvements come in a variety of ways.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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