Vols backed into a familiar position

September, 19, 2008
9/19/08
8:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In honor of Roberto Duran, we'll refer to Saturday's Florida-Tennessee clash as the "No Mas" game.

For those nonboxing enthusiasts, Duran was accused of uttering those now famous words in his second fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, abruptly ending the bout in stunning fashion.

Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes accused Tennessee this week of uttering those same words last September in the Swamp, at least figuratively.

"We saw them give up ... They quit playing," said Spikes, who went on to say that he knew the Vols weren't as tough as the Gators.

Fighting words?

Perhaps, but anybody who was at the Swamp last Sept. 15 would have a hard time disagreeing with Spikes.

Maybe the Vols didn't give up, but they certainly wilted in the scorching Florida sun and didn't put up much of a fight after Florida's Dustin Doe ran a fumble back 18 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

"It makes you sick. It just makes you sick to your stomach when see that, and all you can do is blame yourself for allowing it to happen," Tennessee junior linebacker Rico McCoy said. "We can't say, 'Why did you do that?' We were on the field, too."

Let's face it, this has been a one-sided rivalry, for the most part, ever since the two teams started playing yearly in 1992 when the SEC expanded and split into two divisions.

Steve Spurrier had the Vols' number and reveled in gigging them about it when he was at Florida. Now, it's Urban Meyer who has their number, and it's not his nature to publicly gig them. He just beats the daylights out of them.

See last year's 59-20 carnage at the Swamp where the Gators were up four touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter with Tim Tebow still throwing it down the field.

It was Meyer's third straight win over Tennessee, and according to the Tennessee players, his message rang through loud and clear that day.

"I don't think they respect us one bit," sophomore receiver Gerald Jones said. "A lot of people probably don't, but we are going to earn our respect come Saturday."

For Tennessee, the ramifications are far greater than this year or this Eastern Division race.

The UCLA loss was a devastating blow to Fulmer. It only got worse when BYU destroyed the Bruins 59-0 last week.

The number of orange-hearted people fearing that the Tennessee program under Fulmer is a sinking ship is growing. Is that fair, especially for a program that was in the SEC championship game a year ago and has been to Atlanta five of the last 11 years?

Probably not, but the reality is that the level of fan apathy under Fulmer could approach an all-time high if the Gators come into Neyland Stadium on Saturday and waste the Vols for a second straight year.

There was no covering up the pockets of empty seats in Neyland Stadium last week against Alabama-Birmingham in the Vols' home opener. It will only get worse if Florida makes it four in a row.

Outside of going to Atlanta on a regular basis, the numbers this decade for Tennessee's program haven't been pretty.

The Vols haven't won an SEC championship since their 1998 national championship season and haven't played in a BCS bowl since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.

The three schools you're measured by at Tennessee are Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Since 2000, the Vols are a combined 11-13 against those three schools. During that same span, they're 17-22 against nationally ranked teams.

And at home against Top 10 teams, they're 1-7 since the start of the 2000 season. Their last home win over an SEC team ranked in the Top 10 was Georgia in 1999.

"We need this win," Tennessee junior tailback Montario Hardesty said. "We definitely have a lot of pride in the team we're representing. Regardless of what they're saying or what's coming out of their mouths, we've got to go out and execute our plan and go out there and win this game."

In a twisted sort of way, maybe the Vols have the No. 4-ranked Gators right where they want them.

The last time we heard the talk this desperate in Knoxville was right before the Georgia game a year ago. The Vols, still reeling from their 59-20 loss to Florida, shocked the No. 12-ranked Bulldogs 35-14 and were able to navigate their way to the SEC championship game.

For whatever reason, Fulmer's teams have responded best in recent years with their backs to the wall and when nobody was giving them a chance. Some of their best wins this decade have come in an underdog role.

Or when their pride was severely bruised.

"Yeah, we do well in these situations," McCoy said. "But more than anything, we have to make up for what happened last year, to ease our minds. That wasn't us.

"You'll see what we're about on Saturday."

Chris Low | email

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