Florida coach Billy Napier gets another shot at ending rivalry skid vs No. 11 Tennessee

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A week after snapping a four-game losing streak, Florida has a chance to end another — arguably more important — slide.

The Gators (1-1) have dropped four consecutive rivalry games, going 0-4 against Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in coach Billy Napier’s first season in Gainesville. They will try to halt the skid against the 11th-ranked Volunteers (2-0) in the Swamp on Saturday night.

“It’s a big week,” Napier said. “Anytime you play a rival, it’s a big game. Eastern Division opponent, SEC game. When it comes to the SEC, there’s magnitude here as a program.”

Napier became the first football coach in school history to lose to all four rivals in the same season, a dubious feat that much-maligned predecessors Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp and Ron Zook managed to avoid.

Napier clearly understands the stakes. He spent considerable time during training camp educating his players about their rivals: he showed highlight videos from games dating back decades and brought in guest lecturers who have experienced wins and losses in those all-important series.

Former Florida greats Kevin Carter, Mike Peterson and Brandon Spikes were among those who spoke. The trio enjoyed plenty of success against the Vols in their heydays, winning a combined 10 of 12 matchups.

“For me, it’s understanding the emotion behind it, the passion,” said Florida quarterback Graham Mertz, who transferred from Wisconsin. “I’ve been a part of rivalries. Just understanding the newness of it. For me, it’s gaining that appreciation for what’s come before me, really being able to honor that.”

Carter (1991-94) and Peterson (1995-98) lost just once to Tennessee under coach Steve Spurrier; Spikes (2006-09) won all four meetings under coach Urban Meyer.

Spurrier tormented rivals over the years, whether it was with high-scoring offense or with not-so-playful barbs and one-liners. Meyer was more passive-aggressive, putting logos in urinals and refusing to call certain opponents by name.

Napier is taking a more systematic approach.

“We did some work there relative to going back and really educating everyone on the history and the magnitude of the game,” he said. “’Do you understand that this was THE GAME at one point in time in college football relative to the SEC, the Eastern Division and certainly the national championship picture?’”

The Tennessee-Florida winner advanced to the SEC title games 12 times in 17 years between 1993 and 2009. Two-time defending national champion Georgia has since become the team to beat in the East, having won the division five of the last six years.

Tennessee and Florida have the potential to close the gap on the Bulldogs. Napier, though, has some doubters.

While several second-year coaches enjoyed immediate turnarounds — TCU’s Sonny Dykes, USC’s Lincoln Riley and LSU’s Brian Kelly — others have shown signs of being on the right track. Duke’s Mike Elko, Miami’s Mario Cristobal and Washington State’s Jake Dickert notched signature wins early in Year 2.

Napier, meanwhile, has lost six consecutive games to teams ranked in the Top 25 since beating Utah to open the 2022 season. He was the first Florida coach since Charley Pell in 1979 to have a losing record in his debut season, and barring wins against at least some of Florida’s rivals this season, he’s unlikely to find the same kind of second-year success in Gainesville that Spurrier, Meyer, Muschamp and Dan Mullen did.

Those guys really excelled against Tennessee, which has lost 16 of the last 18 meetings against Florida.

Coming off a victory in Knoxville last season, the Volunteers are trying to win consecutive games in the series for the first time since 2003-04. They last won in the Swamp in 2003, a nine-game skid over two decades that the Gators would like to extend.

Napier doesn’t need any history lessons himself regarding this series. His father’s family hails from Tennessee, and he grew up admiring Spurrier, a Tennessee native.

“When your dad’s a high school coach, the parts of the country that my family’s from, the era that I grew up in, Florida-Tennessee was a big deal at that point in time,” Napier said. “Pretty well-versed in this one.”


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