College football fans left earlier than usual to get to Knoxville while visitors fled the area midweek to avoid the remnants of Hurricane Ivan.
Athletic directors at Tennessee and Florida fielded questions all week about whether the SEC showdown would kick off as planned.
Yes, No. 11 Florida (1-0) will play at No. 13 Tennessee (1-0) at 8 tonight.
Now the bigger question: Which one will be able to weather storms on two fronts?
Each will not only have to battle a tough opponent, but the aftereffects of the tropical storm.
The mountains protected Knoxville from the most serious damage, but heavy rains pummeled the area late Thursday and most of Friday.
High school football games were moved to Thursday night. A flood watch was in effect, and schools in surrounding counties were closed Friday.
Even practices at Tennessee were a bit unusual. The Vols spent extensive time running wet ball drills.
"We are preparing for some wet weather," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "We practiced in the rain during camp, and we will continue to do wet ball drills in all phases; just preparing the best that we can as we look at this weekend and the possibilities of some weather coming in.
"As far as I'm concerned, the mind-set is that it doesn't matter. There will be two good teams playing each other, and I expect a very physical, hard-fought football game."
Rain, hurricanes, tropical storms and game-day lightning delays have besieged the Gators over the past month.
"Last week, we practiced in rain three out of the five days, so we're ready," senior cornerback Cory Bailey said. "I'm not really worried about the rain. As long as it doesn't snow, we'll be all right."
The weather forecast was adjusted Friday evening to a 10 percent chance of rain at kickoff, and Tennessee officials said despite the heavy wind and steady rain of the previous 48 hours, they expect the field to be in good playing condition.
But as far as Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is concerned, the game could have been played in the noon sunshine and it wouldn't change Florida's ultimate goal.
"We have got to stop the run, period," Strong said. "The quarterbacks are pretty good, but we have to stop the run whether it's (Cedric) Houston, (Gerald) Riggs, Jabari Davis, (Corey) Larkins, whomever they put back there. We have to stop the run."
Tennessee, too, is concerned with stopping the run, but its inexperienced secondary also must contend with quarterback Chris Leak.
"I think he can pass the ball even in 50 mile per hour winds," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "I've got a lot of confidence in Chris. He's improving through his work ethic and the way he plays on the field. I think he deserves the confidence that everyone has in him."
But here's the statistic that has been part of the conversation in both locker rooms: The winner of 12 of the past 14 has outrushed the other.
"The Florida-Tennessee matchup is always an offensive line game," Florida center Mike Degory said. "All offensive linemen like that; just go slop around. Obviously, you probably want the best weather possible, but if it turns out that way, we've got to play the way we always play."
With freshman quarterbacks Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge sharing playing time and several young players on its offensive line, Tennessee hopes to strike a balance between its running and passing games.
"We're going to try and be as balanced on offense as we can," Fulmer said. "That's a very big challenge for our offense. Last year, we were able to hold them to 73 yards rushing. That's another big challenge for our defense this year."
The weather is a concern on the field as well as for the fans, officials said. The Knoxville Police Department has assigned extra officers to its regular game-day security. They will try to make sure fans avoid trouble spots due to the flooding.
"It being a night game is going to make it that much worse," Lt. Monte Boone said.
FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY FOR FLORIDA
1. DeSHAWN WYNN: The running game has been critical in this series. The team with more rushing yards has won 12 of 14. And with the expected rainy weather, this year should be no different. Ciatrick Fason has emerged as Florida's featured back, which is why his backup, Wynn, becomes so important. Tennessee will focus much of its effort on Fason, who can't carry the ball the entire game. Wynn must emerge as another threat, keeping the running game from becoming one-dimensional.
2. A POISED CHRIS LEAK: After his highly publicized decision to attend Florida over Tennessee (and his subsequent dissing of the Vols program), Leak is still public enemy No. 1 for a lot of Vols fans and players. Florida insists Leak can't be rattled. Then there's the issue of having his family at the game and his brother wearing a Tennessee uniform. How well he handles it all will be key.
3. CREATE CONFUSION: Tennessee has a dual-quarterback system using two freshmen. Florida needs to find ways to confuse the young players: making changes at the line of scrimmage, throwing stunts, hiding schemes. Throwing them off their game early then getting to them via the linebackers plays in the Gators' favor.
4. TAKE THE CROWD OUT EARLY: When you're playing in Neyland Stadium, the crowd can be as much of a factor as anyone on the field. Florida needs to get a good start and quiet the crowd quickly.
5. AVOID TURNOVERS: In big games such as this, turnovers can make a big difference. Florida can't turn the ball over. It's that simple.
FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY FOR UT
1. DON'T RELY ON THE QUARTERBACKS: No matter how impressive they were against UNLV, the fact is Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge are three months removed from high school. The Vols can't put the entire game on their shoulders.
2. HOPE SECONDARY CHANGES WERE CORRECT: After its first game, the coaching staff made several changes in its secondary, including moving junior Jason Allen from defensive back to safety and freshman Jonathan Hefney into Allen's spot, making the secondary inexperienced. With last week off, this will be the first time those changes will be tested. The Vols have to hope they made the right moves.
3. RUN THE BALL: Like Florida, having a successful running game is crucial. Not only will it take the pressure off of the freshman quarterbacks, but in inclement weather, it might be the only option. Tailback Cedric Houston has been hampered by an ankle injury but is expected to play. The Vols have a solid corps, including Gerald Riggs and Jabari Davis, both of whom must help carry the load.
4. SUCCESSFULLY HANDLE CHANGE: The Vols coaching staff has been handling audibles because its quarterbacks are so inexperienced, so there's more pressure on offensive coordinator Randy Sanders to make the right calls.
5. AVOID COSTLY MISTAKES: The last time the two played in Knoxville, the Vols fumbled eight times, losing three, and Florida won 30-13. It has to avoid those kinds of mistakes.
_ ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times staff writer
MEMORABLE GATOR RAIN GAMES
Florida has had its share of big games in miserable, rainy conditions. Here is a look at a few of the more memorable ones in the past decade:
FLORIDA VS. GEORGIA, 1993: Errict Rhett carried the ball a school-record 41 times for 193 yards in the Gators' 33-26 win against the Bulldogs on the night before Halloween in the annual clash in Jacksonville. Florida went on to win its first SEC championship.
FLORIDA VS. TENNESSEE, 1995: Gators cornerback Tony George, who was so worked up before the game that he hyperventilated, intercepted a Peyton Manning pass and returned it 89 yards, a play that proved to be the backbreaker in a 62-37 Gator win. The Gators went on to play in their first national championship game in January. George's interception was the third longest in Florida history.
FLORIDA AT TENNESSEE, 2002: The Vols fumbled eight times, losing three, as the 10th-ranked Gators beat No. 4 Tennessee 30-13 in Ron Zook's first road game as Gators coach. Rex Grossman went on to finish as the Heisman Trophy runnerup.
FLORIDA VS. LSU, 2003: Florida scored on passes of 22 and 35 yards from Chris Leak to Ran Carthon and Ciatrick Fason, respectively, as the Gators, unranked for the first time in more than a decade, knocked off the Tigers 19-7. BCS champion LSU had to share the national title thanks largely to Florida, who handed it its only loss of the season.
NOTE: Zook is 4-0 in rain games: vs. Ohio (2002) 34-6; at Tennessee (2002) 30-13; at LSU (2003) 19-7; vs. Eastern Michigan (2004) 49-10.
Source: Florida sports information department