Florida Football Friday Final: Billy Napier seeks statement win in rivalry game vs. No. 11 Tennessee

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 15, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Billy Napier seeks statement win in rivalry game vs. No. 11 Tennessee

Image Credit: Mallory Peak, UAA

The tenure of head coach Billy Napier has not gone exactly as the Florida Gators had planned two games into his second season. There are a variety of reasons that is the case — roster composition and unplanned, extensive quarterback attrition among them — but there is one statistic that sticks out more than any other when evaluating his Gators teams.

Florida went 0-4 against its traditional rivals in Year 1 under Napier. The last first-year Gators coach to see the same disappointing results was Charley Pell, who went 0-10-1 in 1979. Not only that, Napier lost to Kentucky and Vanderbilt, too; it was the first time that happened in the same season since 1974.

In other words, beyond the fact that the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers are a ranked opponent, and beyond the fact that the opponent is Tennessee itself, Napier can restore some faith in his deliberate process by picking up a win in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night.

Unlike former head coach Urban Meyer, who made a habit of turning up the temperature during rivalry weeks making his teams froth at the mouth when given the opportunities to take down the likes of UT, Georgia, LSU and Florida State, Napier is (you guessed it!) taking a simpler, more mundane approach. Napier explained that time is spent in training camp educating the players about the history of the game.

“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?” Napier shared as a statement he made to the program. “We have several of these games, and they all matter. This one is unique when you go back and look at the history of this game, the importance.”

Napier further noted that any rivalry game is a big game, but he didn’t put any additional importance on this week’s contest compared to the rest of the games on Florida’s schedule in terms of its impact on the 2023 campaign.

Still, redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz confirmed that Napier’s tactics worked to have the Gators obtain a deeper understanding of the emotion and passion that comes with this game. Plus, former star linebacker Brandon Spikes — now a member of Florida’s support staff — made his passion for the Tennessee rivalry known.

“B. Spikes put a bug in our ear,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams said. “… Spikes is always hype. He’s more hype this week.”

That passion clearly extends to the fans. Saturday night’s game is sold out marking the fifth such achievement since Napier took over the program. He was effusive of the fan support when learning of the packed house Wednesday.

“It’s a motivator,” he said. “We came here to make Florida a contender again, be in contention, be relevant and win championships. We’re in the process of creating that.”

A win over Tennessee would give Napier two victories over top-15 opponents in The Swamp across as many seasons, though it would be his first victory over a ranked SEC team. The Gators went 1-5 against top 25 teams in 2022, losing five straight after the season-opening win over then-No. 7 Utah.

Florida has not lost to Tennessee in The Swamp since 2003, winning nine straight series meetings in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators have only dropped back-to-back contests to the Volunteers twice since 1970.

Notes & quotes

  • Napier expressed confidence that the Gators are “much improved” on defense and believes the unit will only get better as the season progresses given the relative youth at all three levels. He is pleased with the depth that has been created in each unit.
  • While he has seen bright spots offensively, Napier clarified that Florida’s lack of explosive plays through two weeks has been a concern highlighted in practice.
  • Mertz said he’s not concerned about Florida’s ability to push the ball down the field; in fact, he’s confident in it given not just his arm strength but the playmakers’ ability to get open. He said there’s a balance between being aggressive and decisive that always must be weighed.
  • Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne said his position group is working on pass catching daily, and the expectation should be to see more of that as the season continues.
  • Etienne on freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III: “Crazy athlete, man. Speedy, too. I thought I came in and was like one of those guys. But then I sit back and watch him like, ‘Dang, man, he looks like he’s done this before.'”
  • Mertz on redshirt junior starting center Kinglsey Eguakun finally being cleared: “I’ve seen King for the past two weeks want to be out there. He’s got an edge to him. He’s excited.” Etienne called Eguakun a “field general” who will make everyone else more comfortable on the field.
  • Napier said the Gators have been most focused on dealing with the Vols’ offensive tempo and how to systematically break that down on the defensive end.
  • There was a good line Napier had when asked about marketing’s goal to have everyone wear blue Saturday night in The Swamp. “What’s understood sometimes doesn’t need to be said. This is Florida-Tennessee. We’re pretty well-versed in this one.”
  • Napier is pleased with the development of redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jamari Lyons.

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