Why Florida Gators’ rivalry with Tennessee is different for Billy Napier

Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/TNS

GAINESVILLE — After growing up in Kansas and playing at Wisconsin, Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz didn’t know much about the rivalry with Tennessee.

Coach Billy Napier changed that quickly. Florida’s onboarding process for every new player and staffer includes historical videos on every rival; Mertz left the lessons with a full notebook.

“What you see when you watch those games is the passion and the love for this place,” Merz said. “I think that’s one thing that the current players, we saw that. You definitely want to embody that.”

Saturday is a good time to start, as Florida hosts the No. 11 Volunteers in the biggest game of Napier’s tenure. Napier has already become the first coach in program history to lose to Florida’s four primary rivals (Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee) in the same season. A defeat would make it five rivalry losses in a row — something the Gators haven’t experienced since they dropped 10 in a row from 1977-80.

Napier didn’t reference that specific history Monday, but he wants everyone who touches the program to know the significance of this series.

“Do you understand that this was the game at one point in time in college football relative to the SEC, the Eastern Division and certainly the national championship picture, right?” Napier said.

The Gators and Volunteers combined to win the SEC nine times over an 11-year span from 1990-2000 with one national title each. The stakes have sputtered since then, though the matchup has been the site of ESPN’s “College GameDay” twice in the last decade. Both were Florida losses, including last year’s 38-33 defeat in Knoxville.

That, too, is in the background this week.

“I think any time you get into a week like this, it’s bigger than just this team,” Mertz said. “It’s the Florida Gators, and that’s everybody: fans, coaches, families, people that have played here.”

Mertz and his teammates have had plenty of interactions with some of the previous Gators greats who played when Florida-Tennessee was one of the nation’s marquee matchups instead of a mere regional rivalry. That, too, is part of Napier’s onboarding process during training camp — listening to legends talk about the importance of these games

“You could tell how much it meant to them,” Mertz said. “As a current player, it’s got to mean that and more to you, to really honor those guys that came before you.”

Mertz and the rest of the Gators will finally get that chance Saturday in a game that will be pivotal for the trajectory of this season and Napier’s career.

UF injury update

Napier said the Gators are getting starting center Kingsley Eguakun back this week from an ankle injury. Eguakun started every game from 2021-22 and was regarded as one of the Gators’ top returning players. Assuming he’ll return to the starting lineup, he’ll be a boost against a Tennessee defense that’s tied with Nebraska for the most sacks in the country (11).

USF transfer to start for UCF

Former USF quarterback Timmy McClain is set to start for UCF on Saturday against Villanova after John Rhys Plumlee sustained a leg injury late in the Knights’ win at Boise State. McClain started nine games as a true freshman for the Bulls in 2021. He completed 55.3% of his passes that season for 1,888 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 238 yards and four scores.

McClain entered the transfer portal last August after Gerry Bohanon won USF’s quarterback competition. He redshirted last season at UCF.

Kickoff times

Start times and TV information were announced for the Sept. 23 games:

Florida State at Clemson: Noon, ABC

Miami at Temple: 3:30 p.m., ESPN2

Rice at USF: 4 p.m., ESPNU

Charlotte at Florida: 7 p.m., ESPN+/SEC Network+

UCF at Kansas State: 8 p.m., FS1

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