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AN SEC EAST TITLE? DREAM ON

Florida envisions a championship run, and it all starts in Tennessee.

A chance at a championship.

When Florida and Tennessee meet at noon today in Neyland Stadium, that's what is on the line for the Gators. Undefeated in an SEC East that is a jumbled mess, the Gators still have their initial goal - an East title - in reach.

For Florida (2-1, 1-1 SEC), a loss would be a serious blow to any title chances; the Gators most likely would have to run the table in league games.

And after a poor showing against Alabama and a bye week to reflect on their mistakes, the Gators are well aware of how important this game really is.

"It's very critical," junior running back Matt Jones said. "Because the East is wide open right now and everybody has a (league) loss, to go in there and beat Tennessee ... is going to be good."

But this isn't the Tennessee of the past few years. The Vols (2-2, 0-1) under second-year coach Butch Jones are showing signs of a resurgence. Jones, who is leading a team that has played 22 freshmen - most in the nation - said the game is "a tremendous, tremendous challenge."

"If you look at them defensively, we believe they have two of the best players in the country at their respective positions (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive lineman Dante Fowler)," Jones said. "They may be the best in the country. ... It is going to take a great effort."

The Gators have a nine-game winning streak against UT dating to 2005, but coach Will Muschamp has already warned his team to ignore that.

"We can't rely on anything in the past, that has no merit for 2014," senior center Max Garcia said. "(Muschamp) said, 'We got these guys nine years in a row, but it doesn't mean anything.' They're going to fight. They have new excitement for this year. They feel like they played really well against Georgia, they have confidence and they're going to come after us like every team does."

The Vols have launched a "Checker Neyland Stadium" campaign and are expecting a sellout of more than 102,000 - a true homefield advantage. And while this rivalry doesn't carry the national stature it held in the 1990s, the players said it's no less important to those involved now.

"I think it's going to be really cool," Vols linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "Noon game, checkerboard Neyland. It's going to be epic."

"I think the environment is going to be crazy," senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "Just looking at the pictures (of how the stadium will look) makes me want to play. Our fans are going to have the emotions high."

Many of the Gators are well aware of the environment, including Matt Jones, who played at Neyland as a freshman. "I think they probably had the loudest stadium I've been in as a starter because I started that game," he said. "Their fans get into it and, with any team, when their fans get into it, the team tends to pull together and get the rally."

It will be Florida's second straight road game in a stadium with a crowd of more than 100,000. To keep those championship hopes alive, the Gators need to handle the Vols - and their crowd - much better than they did Alabama.

The season depends on it.

"All the goals are still there," Muschamp said. "We've got a lot of football to play, everything's out in front of us, let's go get it. They're all must-wins. When has it ever changed?"

Contact Antonya English at aenglish@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3389. Follow @TBTimes_Gators.

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