If hype is any marker for how a season is going, then the Vols are on the right track ahead of their SEC opener with No. 20 Florida, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET from Neyland Stadium. Fresh off a 63-6 beatdown of Akron, Tennessee football was ranked No. 11 in this week’s AP Poll, its highest rating since October 2016 – and the fanfare only begins there.
“It means the world,” tight end Jacob Warren, a Knoxville native, said of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. “This is what you come to schools like this for. You come for these big rivalries, these big storied matchups between teams.”
Tennessee’s matchup with Akron – Mid-American Conference, four wins in its last four seasons Akron – sold all 101,915 seats of Neyland Stadium’s new capacity, its first sell-out of a non-conference in seven years.
Tennessee-Florida sold out over a week before the game, and the student ticket portal, Big Orange Tix, crashed two minutes after it opened as thousands of students flooded the site for the limited number of seats. Not to mention the fan-driven initiative #CheckerNeyland is back for the sixth time in program history.
It was not long after Heupel’s arrival at Tennessee that he learned the weight that the annual meeting carries.
“Probably 30 seconds after I arrived here on campus,” Heupel said of when he realized the importance of Florida week. “This is one of the ballgames that our fanbase and our players point to. Obviously being a fan of college football, I’ve seen the great games and the rivalry itself play out. That’s why you come here.”
Aside from the internal build-up, outside sources are starting to take notice of Tennessee football as well. ESPN College GameDay – college football’s longest-running pregame show – is coming to Knoxville for the first time since 2016. GameDay is generally reserved for the best rivalries or most exciting matchups of the week, and in 2022, Tennessee-Florida meets every qualification.
“You want to be a part of these types of games,” Heupel said. “You want to have an opportunity to have College GameDay on your campus, and be the prime time slot and have a sold-out stadium… When we run out that T, there won’t be a better atmosphere in college football.”
Florida has dominated the Vols historically, leading the all-time series 31-20, including wins in each of their last five matchups. Tennessee lost as many as 11 games in a row from 2005-2015 before breaking the streak at home in 2016 – coincidentally the last time College GameDay was in Knoxville.
The Gators, however, do not have the same bite as they did after Week 1. Florida climbed as high as No. 12 after a statement win over Utah, then proceeded to lose in prime time to Kentucky before sneaking past USF last weekend.
The Gators’ quarterback Anthony Richardson has been at the center of their slide. He ran for three scores in their Week 1 win, but has thrown four interceptions without a touchdown since. Regardless of Richardson’s play, Heupel knows the threat he poses as a quarterback with an ability to throw the ball both in the pocket and on the move.
“We have to bottle him up in the quarterback run game,” Heupel said. “At the same time, as you’re trying to apply pressure when they’re dropping back and throwing, he’s got the ability to make you pay if you don’t have rush integrity inside your pass rush lanes.”
For the Vols to successfully do that, they will have to get out of their own way. Tennessee committed 22 penalties for nearly 200 yards in three games this year, half of which came in the Akron blowout. After their lack of discipline in an unexpectedly chippy environment last Saturday, the Vols know they will need better control of their emotions in the heat of an SEC rivalry.
“You’re going to hear the outside noise and the energy and the excitement,” Heupel said. “Our kids should be excited about what the environment is going to be on Saturday. Your preparation leads yourself to being ready to play. Competitive composure will be big in this one.”