KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—- Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley says he sometimes sings along to “Rocky Top” while hearing it over and over again whenever the Gators face Tennessee.
“Something gets so annoying, you got to make the best out of it,” Easley said.
Lately, that’s about the only way Tennessee has been able to bother Florida.
Florida has beaten Tennessee eight consecutive times, which represents the Gators’ longest winning streak in the 42-game history of this series. The 19th-ranked Gators try to continue their recent mastery of this rivalry Saturday at The Swamp.
Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC) hasn’t defeated Florida (1-1, 0-0) since a 30-28 victory at Neyland Stadium in 2004. The Vols also have lost their last 17 games against ranked opponents and are 1-23 versus Top 25 teams since 2008.
“Our players understand the rivalry, what is at stake,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I think they understand what has gone on before them. The only thing we can control is our preparation and how we play on Saturday.”
Tennessee hasn’t come particularly close to ending the streak recently. The Gators squeaked past the Vols 21-20 in their 2006 national championship season, but the last six Florida-Tennessee games had an average margin of 19 points, with each of them being decided by double digits.
Jones is in his first year at Tennessee and wasn’t involved in any of those previous losses to Florida. But he knows all about Tennessee’s recent frustrations against the Gators and how it could test his team’s resolve.
Tennessee already is coming off a 59-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon that represented the Vols’ most one-sided defeat since 1910. Now the Vols are going back on the road to face a rival that has dominated them. Jones is challenging his team this week to make sure the Vols enter Gainesville in the right frame of mind.
“Right now, moving forward, we are not a very mentally tough football team,” Jones said. “Everything we do in our football program is about mental conditioning, mental toughness, and when you go on the road you have to have a road focus about yourself.”
Tennessee needs the same focus Florida showed at Neyland Stadium last year.
The Vols were undefeated, playing in front of a sellout crowd and leading the Gators 20-13 in the third quarter last season before everything fell apart. Florida scored the game’s final 24 points to win 37-20.
Tennessee wasn’t the same the rest of the season.
“I think it was just our immaturity last year as a football team,” Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. “We never really developed that mental toughness to overcome the bad things that happened to us in a game last year, so that will be the test this year. OK, we’ve had the bad thing happen to us. How do we respond?”
Florida expects to get Tennessee’s best shot. That’s the nature of this rivalry.
“We know those guys are going to come down ready to throw some punches,” Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “We’ve beaten them (eight) times in a row. Obviously they see that and they want to get one on us.”
Tennessee, a 17-point underdog, knows it must play its best to have a shot at ending the streak. During a team meeting Sunday, Tennessee’s upperclassmen emphasized the importance of this rivalry and the necessity to avoid dwelling on the loss to Oregon.
“We talked to the whole team (to) keep your head up,” offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “This is Florida week. This is one of the most important weeks. It’s SEC time.”
Both teams enter with issues at the quarterback position.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel sprained his left knee in a 21-16 loss at Miami on Sept. 7 but says he is fine to play following the team’s bye week. However, many Gators fans are less concerned about his health than they are his play. Driskel has 10 turnovers in the team’s last three losses, including three costly ones against the Hurricanes.
“No one’s been able to stop us when we haven’t had a turnover or a penalty, so just worry about us first and then taking care of the other team second,” said Driskel, who has completed 70.9 percent of his throws for 444 yards. “If we can handle us, we’ll be fine.”
One of Driskel’s best performances came at Tennessee last year, going turnover-free as he completed 14 of 20 for 219 yards and two TDs while rushing eight times for 81 yards.
“He’s been elusive for us,” Hood said. “… We’ve just got to do a good job containing him, forcing him to make throws and then getting after him when we know it’s a pass down.”
It’s unclear who Driskel’s counterpart will be after Jones said earlier this week he was opening up the Vols’ quarterback competition.
Junior Justin Worley started the first three games, but his 6.53 yards per attempt are the fewest in the SEC and he’s the least mobile of Tennessee’s four quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman has gone 6 of 12 for 40 yards, though Jones didn’t rule out the possibility of starting Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs even though neither freshman has taken a snap.
“Whatever quarterback has the best week of practice will be the starter for Tennessee when we play Florida,” Jones said. “If that means a freshman quarterback, that means a freshman quarterback. We’ll add more quarterback run into our package this week. We just need to find ways to generate big explosive plays.”
Jones expects to have defensive end Corey Vereen available for the first time. The heralded freshman missed Tennessee’s first three games after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during training camp.
Linebacker Curt Maggitt, however, remains sidelined as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.