Vols determined to avoid 10th consecutive Swamp defeat

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee defenders Tank McCollough (22), Aaron Beasley (24) and Tyler Baron (9) will try to defeat Florida in Gainesville this Saturday night after losing this 2021 matchup 38-14.

Some have been excruciating and some have been slaughters, but they've all been losses.

The 11th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers will travel to Florida later this week with the goal of taking down the Gators in the Swamp for the first time in 20 years. The Vols have never lost 10 consecutive times in an opposing venue and will try to avoid that Saturday night (7 on ESPN) and again next month when they venture to Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"It's something that everyone outside of the building cares about and talks about and thinks is a big deal," Tennessee sixth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren said this week in a news conference. "I don't know whether the younger guys know about it or not, but it doesn't really matter, right? When we're on the field, who cares how long it's been?

"Obviously it would be great to win there after this many years, but it's something that we're not worried about."

Tennessee lost the 2017 game in Gainesville 26-20 on a 63-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland as time expired, but the past two Swamp encounters haven't been nearly as dramatic. The Gators cruised to a 34-3 victory in 2019 and won 38-14 two years ago, closing that contest on a 28-0 run.

The 2021 meeting was Josh Heupel's fourth game as Tennessee's coach, and he evened his record against the Gators with a 38-33 triumph last September in Knoxville.

"At the end of the day in this game, yesterday has nothing to do with today," Heupel said. "The previous play has nothing to do with what's going to happen on the next play. It's about preparing the right way and practicing the right way.

"That will lead to you playing the right way."

The Vols, who are coming off last season's surge to an 11-2 record and an Orange Bowl championship, are rare 7-point favorites in this pairing of longtime Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals.

Given the history of this matchup and how it ascended to remarkable heights in the 1990s -- Florida won the 1996 national championship, with Tennessee claiming the crown in 1998 -- there always is a fantastic atmosphere to accompany the contest. The Gators and Vols typically haven't played at night in Gainesville, with only the 2005 and 2021 games having being staged under the lights during Florida's recent run at home.

"I think what's understood sometimes doesn't need to be said," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "This is Florida-Tennessee, and I think our fan base is pretty well-versed in this one. Our fans have an opportunity to contribute to the game and make it very difficult on the opponent.

"It's one of the most iconic and more challenging venues in all of college football, and I anticipate that Saturday night it will be at its best."

Heupel admitted this week that there is no way to completely tune out the noise his team will encounter.

"Once you get the play call, you're focusing on your job," he said. "It's 11 guys inside the white lines. I don't care if it's at home, on the road or in the backyard, these guys have been doing it for a long time. You do have to control your emotions. You have to be able to execute a play from within yourself.

"That will be a big part of the football game."

Tennessee starting quarterback Joe Milton III was 3 years old when Tennessee last prevailed at Florida, while freshman backup quarterback Nico Iamaleava was nearly a year away from being born. Warren was also 3 years old, and that's a fact he would love to change very soon.

"It's challenging for a couple of reasons," Warren said. "The weather is warm and humid in Florida. We've been preparing for that, and it's been humid and warm here, so we've been doing a good job of exposing ourselves to that type of environment.

"Obviously, the crowd is the same way like when you come to Neyland Stadium. They're not necessarily rooting for you, so you've got to get used to the noise and the ruckus, and hopefully you can quiet it down before it gets too out of hand."

It's meeting time

Tennessee senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas said Tuesday that a players-only meeting was held Sunday, less than 24 hours after Saturday night's sluggish 30-13 win over Austin Peay.

"It was a great meeting, honestly," Thomas said in a news conference. "It allowed everybody to see that we're all on the same page. We flushed the game that happened and were like, 'Let's continue to go to work this week.'"

Thomas added that players-only meetings are not that uncommon.

Beasley's barrage

Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley, the defensive MVP of last December's Orange Bowl win over Clemson, enters this weekend as the nation's leader in tackles for loss with six.

"I think it's just a continuation from the way he ended last season," linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said Tuesday. "When you go back and watch the tape of last year, he was the most consistent linebacker that we had, whether he came off the bench or started. The confidence that he built carried over through the spring and summer, and he's playing the way we expected him to."

Famous supporter

Former Tennessee tight end Jason Witten, one of just two tight ends in NFL history to amass more than 13,000 receiving yards, attended Saturday's game.

"It was really cool to see him there," first-year tight ends coach Alec Abeln said. "I got to talk to him a couple of minutes during pregame. Obviously with what he did here and at the professional level -- he's one of the best to ever do it.

"It was really cool to have him on the field pregame, and I do hope we get to connect a little more moving forward."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected]