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Demons begone: The time is now for Tennessee

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire
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It’s time.

Actually, it’s way beyond time for the Tennessee Volunteers to defeat the Florida Gators, ending a streak of 11 straight losses to their SEC East rivals that began when the current freshmen were second-graders.

When Tennessee last beat Florida, it was 2004. The Gators were coached by Ron Zook. Tim Tebow hadn’t yet become a twinkle in the eye of Gator recruit-a-holics.

It was a loooooooooong time ago.

For the sake of the program’s sanity, Tennessee must end this streak Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.

If not now, when?

The Gators are 3-0, but it’s not a vintage UF team. The defense looks outstanding, although it hasn’t been challenged by reputable competition. Starting quarterback Luke Del Rio is injured and out, leaving the duties to Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer who was 2-9 as a starter at Purdue. There’s a four-headed shuffle at running back, mostly because there doesn’t appear to be anyone good enough for full-time starting status.

For the Gators, it’s a transition year.

Meanwhile, this is supposed to be Tennessee’s championship season, its best shot at reaching the SEC Championship Game since 2007, its long-awaited chance at a major bowl.

The Vols also are 3-0, a mark mostly achieved in underwhelming fashion. There was an overtime escape against Appalachian State in the opener, a solid win against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway, and an unartistic triumph against Ohio University.

The Vols are where they should be, unbeaten and facing the nemesis Gators.

Now what?

There’s the physical. The Vols must play much better, avoiding turnovers and silly penalties. There’s also the mental. Vols coach Butch Jones said it’s not useful to talk with his players about an 11-game against Florida. Some are barely aware of it.

Yet, the last couple of years have added a weird twinge that make you wonder if crazy forces are in play.

In 2014, it was a third-quarter fumble in Tennessee territory that led to Florida’s only touchdown in a 10-9 win just when the Gators were ripe to be toppled.

Last season in Gainesville, the Gators trailed by 13 points in the fourth quarter, only to rally behind a pair of long Will Grier-led touchdown drives. The capping play, of course, will live in Vols’ infamy.

Fourth-and-14.

Grier to Antonio Callaway for a miraculous 63-yard touchdown, giving the Gators a pulsating 28-27 victory that was sealed when Tennessee failed on a final-play 55-yard field-goal attempt.

Vols quarterback Joshua Dobbs said beating Florida flashed through his mind at various times during the offseason.

“It’s really what you train for and your mindset over the summer and winter when you’re tired and don’t want to do an extra rep,’’ Dobbs said.

“You do it because you know that’s what’s going to set you apart when the season comes around.

“When you’re on the big stage, you’re not worried if you’re going to play well. You expect yourself to play well because you’re going to fall back on those habits you’ve created.’’

Vols defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said he’s aware of the losing streak against Florida.

Of course he is.

“I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t think about it,’’ Vickers said. “Every day, we’re just trying to be a better team. When we come into this week, we know it’s Florida. We know we’re rivals and we know we pretty much don’t like each other. But that makes it fun when you get on the field where we can compete and try to end that streak.’’

26 September 2015: Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (21) in action during the NCAA football game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field in Gainesville, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

Gators defensive back Jalen Tabor fueled the fire during an August appearance on the Paul Finebaum radio show.

“It’s been the same thing happening for 11 years,’’ Tabor said. “The greatest indication of the future is the past. It’s (the media) picking Tennessee to win the East. I know I’m just a player, but I really don’t see it.

“Tennessee has come close (to beating Florida) two years in a row, but close only works in horseshoes.’’

Tabor was only slightly more complimentary last weekend after the Gators defeated North Texas.

“They (Tennessee) have got some pretty good players,’’ Tabor said. “I feel like they haven’t really played anybody of our caliber yet, so they’ve probably just been kind of slacking around most likely.’’

Gators cornerback Quincy Wilson had perhaps the most interesting metaphor.

“You ever seen a duck pull a truck?’’ Wilson said. “A duck don’t pull a truck.’’

Come again.

“Florida Gators are going to win, simple as that.’’ he said.

So it’s Tennessee’s ducks against Florida’s trucks. Eleven straight victories will take you into that zone, I suppose.

Meanwhile in Knoxville, Jones wants actions, not words, from his players.

“You shouldn’t need that (words) to motivate you,’’ Jones said. “These are the guys you live for. We don’t use that (statements) as motivation. I’m just working to get better.

“It doesn’t do us any good to talk about it. We can’t have any clutter or distractions. We have to work on being a better football team. We can’t let our mind take off. We can’t deviate from that mindset.’’

Actions, not words.

Whatever works.

After 11 straight defeats, what is there to say?

Tennessee has to get this done on Saturday afternoon.

If not now, when?

Demons begone: The time is now for Tennessee

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