Gearing up for Gators

Gearing up for Gators

Willie Nelson may have "Georgia On My Mind" but Tennessee's football players are focused a little further south. They have Florida on their minds.

Unsolicited references to the Gators popped up several times during interviews with Big Orange players earlier this week.

Are the Vols already looking past Game 1 foe Western Kentucky and Game 2 foe UCLA? Probably not. But Florida has won two of the last three national titles and has crushed Tennessee in the past two head-to-head meetings (59-20 in 2007, 30-6 in 2008). That makes the Gators the yardstick against whom all UT progress will be measured.

Consider:

When asked what he has been doing during the summer to get ready for his first full season as the Vols' No. 1 punter, junior Chad Cunningham replied: "In practice I visualize that I'm in the game and that I'm punting to Brandon James or somebody where I have to hang it up there and make him fair-catch it."

James, of course, is Florida's ace return specialist. When Cunningham's first punt against the Gators last September at Neyland Stadium failed to pin James near the West sideline, the Florida speedster returned the misdirected kick 78 yards for a touchdown that extended the Gators' first-quarter lead to 17-0.

When asked about the intense conditioning work Tennessee's players are putting in this offseason, junior defensive end Chris Walker replied: "We've got to break ourselves down and get ready for the fourth quarter down in Gainesville, where it's very hot. We've got to get ready for that."

Gainesville, of course, is the site of Game 3 against Florida.

Finally, when asked if the Vols can use the unpleasant memories of last season's 5-7 disappointment as motivation for 2009, senior tight end Jeff Cottam replied: "We've got a lot to prove. Everyone's doubting us. It's showing up on ESPN ... all the analysts and everything (saying) Florida's going to kill us. We've just got to go out and prove we're a lot better than everybody thinks."

And the best chance to prove they are "a lot better than everybody thinks" arrives Sept. 19 at Florida Field. Tennessee fans might want to mark that date on their calendars.

Apparently, Tennessee players already marked it on theirs.

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