KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There was a time when Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley walked the sideline of football games together, strategizing for the same team, at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins.
Tonight, the two will stand across from each other at Neyland Stadium, each leading once-highly successful programs now battling to return to national prominence. Only into the third week of the season, the game between No. 18 Florida (2-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 23 Tennessee (2-0, 0-0) represents two bitter rivals at a crossroads with a lot on the line and a lot to prove.
"It's pretty much a statement game," Florida senior linebacker Jon Bostic said.
A loss won't end either team's season, but a win for the Gators would complete consecutive road victories with a rookie quarterback and could go a long way in proving that Muschamp might have Florida back on the right track after his disappointing 7-6 first season. The Gators have won just seven conference games in the past two years.
The Vols need to prove they are legitimate SEC East contenders after four consecutive seasons with seven wins or fewer.
Dooley entered his third season with an overall 11-14 record, 4-12 in the SEC. Despite its obvious significance, most notably a chance to jump ahead of rival Florida in the East Division for the first time in seven years, Dooley said he can't allow his players to put any extra emphasis on the game.
"Every game you go, the more you win, the more important they become," Dooley said. "That's how it is. The more you lose, the more important they become. They're all important. … If we win, we have a lot more games left on the schedule. If we don't win, the sky isn't going to fall. We'll find out a little more about our football team this week."
What both coaches have noticed is each team is becoming the program its coaches had hoped to build.
"I think that he's done a nice job there at Tennessee," Muschamp said. "I think you're kind of seeing a little bit more of his identity and personality in this football team as maybe opposed to the previous two years."
Dooley believes the same is true of Muschamp.
"I think Will is getting the team how he wants it," Dooley said.
There was a time when this was the signature game in the East, and the winner was headed to the SEC Championship Game and often a shot at a national title.
"It was always a huge one," said former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who led the Gators to six SEC championships in the 1990s. "It's not the end of it for either team as far as winning the division. Back in the first year of division play in '92, we lost to them, but somehow or another Tennessee lost three conference games that year and we won the division. … It's a huge game."
Spurrier, now coach at South Carolina, said the game lost some of its luster in the past couple of years, mainly because the Vols have been down, and Georgia and his Gamecocks are competitive in the East. But he believes the series could be on its way back.
"It appears (the Vols) are looking very good right now," Spurrier said. "You don't really know how big a game is until the season's over."
The game will have some of the external hype that used to accompany those marquee matchups back in the day.
ESPN's College GameDay will be on campus. Both teams are ranked for the first time since 2007. And it's the first meeting at night in eight years. Florida has won seven in a row in the series.
For the UF players who have been around awhile, this remains among the biggest games of the season.
"Tennessee is always going to feel like Tennessee because that's our rival," Florida fifth-year senior linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "It's our rival team that we love to play. But it's kind of an old-school feel. It's getting back to it (the way the rivalry used to be). This is my first time playing Tennessee at night since I've been at Florida, so it's going to be special."
And vitally important.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]