Josh Heupel said he learned about how important the Florida game is to Tennessee football 30 seconds after he arrived on campus. He noted he learned about the importance of Alabama before that.
Now in his second year, his team will have ESPN College GameDay in town for both. They were on hand to watch UT beat the Gators 38-33 three Saturdays ago, and now they’re coming for the Vols and Crimson Tide matchup.
This is the highest combined ranking between the teams in series history, as noted earlier in the week. Heupel commented in Wednesday’s SEC teleconference that the game is important for everybody affiliated with Tennessee football.
“I think you talk to different Tennessee fans, different generations or different people have who they think the biggest rival is, I think that’s one of the unique things here,” he said. “Alabama obviously is a big one for everybody. This means a lot to our fan base, and for us inside this program, obviously this week means a lot, too.”
It doesn’t mater that the Vols have lost 15 straight to the Tide. Many fans will never cede this game given the history of the series.
With both teams undefeated and in the top 10, the hype behind this one is much greater than in years past. It has increased the magnitude of the rivalry.
“We’ve worked to get to this point to have this type of setting here inside of Neyland Stadium, so excited about that opportunity,” Heupel said.
Despite not being an SEC player, Heupel said that this is a game he grew up watching. He then added that this is a game everybody within the university points to.
“When you come into this job here, you have an understanding of the expectations,” he said. “This is a proud fan base. Expect to win. This is certainly one, one of a few that gets circled by our fan base every year.”
Of course, Heupel could draw on his own history as a player for such matchups. His second year with the Oklahoma Sooners was notable for him leading them to a national championship.
That year, when OU cracked the top 10 for the first time since 1995, they had to get past the No. 11 ranked Texas Longhorns, the No. 2 ranked Kansas State Wildcats and the No. 1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. They won all three.
Obviously, OU and Texas is always a rivalry, and OU and Nebraska was a historic rivalry from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Heupel directed his team through all of them.
Maybe that’s why, heading into this game, Heupel is still more focused on what needs to be done on the field rather than getting caught up in the moment. To him, it’s about what Tennessee football does.
“We’ve tried to continue to grow and build this program,” he said. “We’ve done that here in the early part. For us, man, preparation is going to be critical to allow us to go play our best football on Saturday, understanding that we’re playing a great opponent.”
However, there is a difference in Heupel’s tone. He has been saying in the past that each game is the biggest one because it’s the next one, particularly Florida.
This week, though, he touted the importance of the rivalry and the excitement surrounding it. To be fair, at least leading up to the game, it’s one of the highest magnitude of his head coaching career.
That doesn’t mean he’s not looking at this game as an opportunity, though. Heupel continues to embrace the atmosphere of GameDay and a top 10 matchup.
“Everybody’s excited and looking forward to the challenge on Saturday afternoon,” he said. “We’re playing a really good football team. Well-coached. Great personnel, so it’ll be a huge test for us, really in all three phases of the game.”