Tennessee has to beat Florida this weekend if they want to make their dream of reaching the SEC Championship a reality. Granted, it is a long season, and the SEC East has not been as strong as in past years, but UT and Head Coach Butch Jones need this victory. The Oklahoma loss two weeks ago was discouraging especially considering the Volunteers surrendered seventeen unanswered points late in the game, which was the largest deficit a team has come back by in Neyland Stadium. However, losing to the Sooners was not that costly in the big picture.
However, it gets real this weekend as Tennessee opens conference play this Saturday in Gainesville, Florida, as they take on the Florida Gators. The Volunteers need to get a "W" this Saturday for multiple reasons. First, it is a pride thing. Tennessee has not beaten Florida in ten years. It has certainly been lopsided as of late. One of the most head-scratching and frustrating losses was the 2014 edition in which the Vols lost in Knoxville to a bad Will Muschamp-coached Florida team, 10-9, in Knoxville.
Coming into this game, Tennessee is the more talented team particularly on the offensive side of the ball. This is a game they should win, but the Volunteers still have to prove it. A victory against their rivals in the Swamp would be just what the doctor ordered as they still have the sour taste of losing to Bob Stoops' Oklahoma lingering in their mouths. It would be a huge confidence boost for this team.
Another reason is for Butch Jones himself. Butch Jones was hired in 2013, when the football team and the fans in Knoxville were at an all-time low. Who could blame them either? They had suffered through Lane Kiffin's departure after one season and the abysmal Derek Dooley years. Jones was still not the first choice, but promises of building Tennessee back up "brick by brick" to the success they had experienced during the glory years made the Volunteer faithful happy. Combine that with landing a couple of phenomenal recruiting classes, finally reaching and winning a bowl game last season, and being picked to win the SEC East by many experts, the buzz around the program is the loudest it has been in quite a while.
Despite the new life and talent Butch Jones has been injecting into the program, one thing needs to happen. The Volunteers have got to start winning. No, do not bring up wins over a bad South Carolina Gamecock team and a mediocre Iowa team in the Gator Bowl last year as "signature wins." For all the talk and hype of the Vols by their fans and the media, Jones and his team have to prove it on the field. A win against Florida does not necessarily mean Tennessee is back just yet, but it shows the team is going in the right direction.
UT Will Open Its SEC Slate Against Florida in the Infamous Swamp a.k.a Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
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The Volunteers also have to win this game to cement themselves as true SEC East contenders. Losing to Florida again would not usher in the Apocalypse and the Vols could still technically somehow get to Atlanta, but let's be honest here. Unless, Tennessee can beat a Florida team that is not near where it used to be with a new head coach in Jim McElwain, a super shaky offensive line, an inexperienced offense led by freshman quarterback Will Grier, they are simply not good enough to represent the Eastern Division in the conference title game. Either that or Florida turns out to be sensational, but barely beating East Carolina two weeks ago would hardly suggest that.
A win against the Gators would not only help team morale, but it would also serve as a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of reaching Atlanta for Tennessee. Butch Jones, like most coaches would, has sought to downplay the importance of this game as just any other, but it clearly is not. This game has been said by some to be the most pivotal one of the Butch Jones' era in Knoxville and a must-win if this program wants to get back to being the Tennessee people once knew and loved. The game in Gainesville might look like just any ordinary game to the outsider looking in, but to Butch Jones and his Vols, that could not be further from the truth.