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A year ago, the pregame conversation surrounding Tennessee-Florida centered on a historic losing streak, Twitter trash-talk and ducks pulling trucks.
"Hate week" has been much subdued this September, but Tennessee will waltz into The Swamp on Saturday with a boldness it hasn't had since Phillip Fulmer roamed the sidelines.
It only took one of the most memorable comebacks in Neyland Stadium history for the Vols to exorcise 4,390 days of anguish and suddenly believe.
Last season, the Vols, losers of 11 straight in the series, found themselves down 21-0 to the Gators and staring at another embarrassing showing in the once storied rivalry.
But then, as if 102,000 collectively awoke from a reoccurring nightmare, Rocky Top roared, as Tennessee scored 38 unanswered points en route to a raucous 38-28 win. In a game filled with magical moments, the Vols schooled the supposed D.B.U. with four passing touchdowns in less than 15 minutes and held the Gators without a first down on six straight possessions.
“I’ve really never been in that type of game. I’ve been on the other side of it, actually,” UF coach Jim McElwain said this summer at SEC Media Days. “You talk about rivalries. That’s what makes college football what it is. I didn't know a whole lot about the rivalry (in 1990s) but I’m learning quickly now.”
After more than a decade of futility, last year’s resounding comeback was a cathartic experience for Tennessee fans, coaches and players. Certain moments remain ingrained in folks' minds. Jauan Jennings toasting Teez Tabor. Derek Barnett single-handedly ruining two consecutive drives, and Danny O’Brien saying postgame that Tennessee “stuck the hose in their mouth at the end.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a game quite like that. The ups and downs we had. We’re part of history, really, just ending the streak. We don’t want to be part of breaking a streak like that ever again,” senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said.
“I still think about Jauan's catch," Vols offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said.
"I actually got beat on that play and let (Josh) Dobbs get hit on that play, so I don't really like to think about that play very much (laughing). But you know, (Josh) Malone running like he was running a 4.2 out there when he scored that touchdown, obviously just a huge comeback. … Now we’ve been there before, we know what it takes to beat Florida and hopefully try to find that same recipe for Saturday."
Big Orange Nation certainly opens so.
With Hurricane Irma crippling the Sunshine State over the last week, there’s be a muted tone surrounding the game this year. But an important SEC football game will be played on Saturday afternoon in The Swamp (3:30 p.m., CBS), and unlike year’s past, Tennessee has a quiet confidence entering the showdown. The Vols went to Gainesville with a mental roadblock in 2013, and then they squandered a 13-point lead in 2015.
Sure, they haven't won in The Swamp since 2003, but now that the 800-pound Gator is off their back, they fully expect to win Saturday.
“I remember standing in the locker room (in 2013) and asking how people actually believed we could win the game,” Tennessee’s fifth-year coach Butch Jones recalled.
“But we realized, ‘We could’ve won this football game.’ That’s part of changing the mindset and culture in a football program. Our players realized that. … Now our players expect to win.”
The heroes from the last two games won’t be on the field Saturday. Will Grier is gone, Antonio Callaway is suspended, Dobbs and Barnett are off to the NFL and Jennings is hurt. A new star will undoubtably emerge, and Kendrick said the sole focus is on “renting the stadium for however long it takes to get the win.”
“The (2015 game) still has a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “The other guys that were here, Ethan (Wolf) and all of them, I think we still feel like we have a lot to prove going back down there. It would be huge for our senior class to get that win down there. We talk about renting the stadium for however long it takes for us to get the win. If you can go into a stadium like The Swamp and you can make it go silent, I think that says a lot about your team.”
As SEC play begins, the No. 22 Vols remain a flawed team. There are are questions about their defense and playmaking options outside of John Kelly and Marquez Callaway. Quinten Dormady will make his first start on the road Saturday. But the resolve Tennessee displayed in the comeback against Florida has become a staple in the last year. Georgia. Texas A&M and then Georgia Tech to open the 2017 season.
While safety Micah Abernathy scoffed at the notion that last year’s win was some sort of breakthrough for Tennessee, several seniors who'd experienced years of disappointment against UF disagreed.
There’s a difference between confidence and know-how, and the Vols know they can beat the Gators now.
Senior tight end Ethan Wolf referred to the victory as “a good reminder” and Kendrick talked about the lasting legacy of the win.
But it was Vickers who succinctly said, “We've always had the confidence that we'd be able to beat them, but we just had to go out and do it. … We know how it is to beat Florida now, and Florida knows how it is to lose to us now.
“So it’s going to be fun.”