- Associated Press - Friday, September 16, 2011

GAINESVILLE, FLA. (AP) - Growing up a huge Florida fan, quarterback John Brantley tried to forget losses to Tennessee. It wasn’t too hard.

There weren’t many of them _ and none lately.

The 16th-ranked Gators (2-0) will try to extend their dominance in the rivalry when they host the Volunteers (2-0) on Saturday. With the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division seemingly up for grabs _ Georgia is 0-2 and South Carolina has been far from impressive _ the game could be as meaningful as it was for more than a decade beginning in 1990.

“Inside that locker room, it definitely has that same intensity that it always has,” Brantley said.

The Gators have won 15 of 21 since the series became an annual occurrence, including six in a row. It’s Florida longest winning streak against Tennessee since they first played in 1916.

The series has taken a turn lately, with friends and former co-workers Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp taking over the programs. Dooley, in his second year at Tennessee, and Muschamp, in his first season at Florida, were on Nick Saban’s staffs at LSU (2001-04) and with the Miami Dolphins (2005).

The youngest son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Derek graduated from Georgia’s law school and started his coaching career with the Bulldogs. Muschamp grew up in Gainesville, played at Georgia and got his first coaching gig at Auburn.

They know all about the Tennessee-Florida rivalry, especially that part about the winner advancing to the SEC championship game 12 times in 19 years. But they haven’t offered up the barbs, one-liners and front-page fodder that defined the series under former coaches Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer or even Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin.

“It’s not the end of the world if you lose, and it’s not a giant celebration if you win,” Dooley said. “But it’s like getting a good jump on somebody, so it is big. It’s important. … We could win down there and then go get shellacked the next six weeks in a row or we could lose down there and then go play great six weeks.

“We are going to go do everything we need to do to try to win the game and if we don’t, we are going to try to learn from it and try to get better the next week. If we do (win), we are going to see what we didn’t do well, why we won, and then go try to duplicate it the next week. If you approach it any differently than that, you are going to be an emotional wreck.”

Both teams looked solid in their first two games.

Tennessee handled Montana and Cincinnati, scoring a combined 87 points and raising expectations along the way.

The Volunteers racked up 970 yards, much of it behind sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray. He completed 79 percent of his passes for 698 yards, with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Bray improved to 6-1 as a starter, but all seven games were played in the state of Tennessee.

Running back Tauren Poole has been solid, and receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers have given the Volunteers the kind of vertical threats missing since Marcus Nash and Joey Kent caught passes from Peyton Manning in the mid-1990s.

But they haven’t really been challenged.

Neither has Florida.

The Gators overwhelmed Florida Atlantic and UAB, winning by a combined score of 80-3. Florida tallied 980 yards and had both games in hand by halftime.

Despite the lopsided wins, Muschamp’s team still has questions. Has Brantley really found his comfort zone in Charlie Weis’ prostyle offense? Can 180-pound running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey hold up in SEC play? Is Florida’s undersized offensive line legit? Will the Gators fix their red-zone problems?

Then there’s the defense. Florida leads the nation in scoring defense, but it has just two sacks and an untested secondary that features two freshmen and two sophomores.

The Gators insist they have no cause for concern. The Volunteers could prove otherwise.

“Obviously they’ve got more talent than the last two teams that we’ve played,” Florida center Jonotthan Harrison said.

Equally certain is what a victory would mean for both teams.

For Florida, it would get Muschamp’s tenure off to a solid start, put the Gators in the early mix for the East and give Brantley another memorable victory.

“Growing up, it’s just always been a huge game and I think it will always be,” Brantley said. “I just try to focus on all the positives with Florida. I’m not going to lie, growing up I tried to forget about the (Tennessee losses).”

For Tennessee, it would give Dooley a signature win, end the losing streak against Florida and offer an indication that the program is getting back on track.

“This is a huge game for us,” Vols linebacker Austin Johnson said. “If we win this game, it gives us a ton of confidence going farther into the season.”

___

AP Sports Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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