The crunch of helmets will echo through the state of Florida in stereo Saturday as three of college football's top four teams converge to settle a few feuds, start a few new ones and scramble for serious poll positions that will affect January's national championship game. On the north end of the state, the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers will try their luck at No. 4 Florida, where they have not won since 1971. On the south end, No. 8 Miami will try to reclaim some of its past glory by giving a rowdy welcome to No. 3 Penn State.
"This is a game that I have circled since last year," Florida wide receiver Darrell Jackson said earlier this week. "This game will decide the season. It will decide where everyone stands. . . . It will decide how good we are. It will decide how good they are."
Last year, a 20-17 overtime victory over Florida was critical to Tennessee's path to a national championship, and while the Volunteers will be looking for more of the same, they realize that things get a lot tougher away from Knoxville's Neyland Stadium. The Gators, who lost last year when a field goal attempt went awry, will be the ones on home turf this time, and the advantage doesn't get much stronger than the noisy, unrelenting environment of the stadium officially called Florida Field but known as The Swamp.
None of the players on Tennessee's roster was born the last time the Volunteers won there, and the players on Florida's roster can barely remember a time when they lost at home. The Gators carry a 29-game home winning streak into Saturday, giving players an obvious swagger at Florida's practice this week.
"They won the national title last year -- call it luck or whatever, but they happened to win it," sophomore strong safety Marquand Manuel told a group of reporters. Manuel's comments were among many bulletin board-worthy quotes the teams have exchanged the last few days, although even Manuel knows that once the whistle is blown, talk will be the last thing on any of the players' minds.
He is one of the many first-year starters who make up Florida's defense, which has given up an average of more than 430 yards and 26 points in its first two games. While the Gators (2-0) may have the psychological edge, the Volunteers (1-0) are more experienced and have more depth.
"I could talk all week and go out there and play bad," Manuel said. "In between those 60 minutes is the only thing that matters. At 8:06, there will be nothing else left to be said. It will just be us and that other color orange out there. This is a different week. We all know that. This is part of our quest."
For Miami (2-0), the quest against Penn State (3-0) has a different focus. The Hurricanes are trying to regain the winning tradition that made them so successful in the 1980s -- this time without NCAA violations. A season-opening win over then-No. 9 Ohio State gave Miami some confidence, although the Hurricanes are still fighting to get back into the national spotlight. When asked Wednesday about the proficiency of Miami linebacker Dan Morgan, a Butkus Award candidate, star Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington asked, "Who's Dan Morgan?" Of course, Arrington can't be criticized too heavily for his self-centeredness -- he's got the Nittany Lions' own problems to worry about after Penn State struggled to beat Pitt last week, eking out a 20-17 win.
"Prior to the Pitt game, that was a concern of mine that we had really fooled a lot of people with the big plays, and one of these days, we were not going to be able to fool people," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said in his weekly teleconference. "We were going to have to go in there and really earn it. That, obviously, is probably going to be [the case] Saturday."