That truth lands on Saturday at Manning's feet. It makes for a good sound bite to say that he came back to win the Heisman Trophy. That assertion is also wrong. "I respect the Heisman, don't get me wrong, but I learned about individual awards last year," says Manning. "I had one off half [against Florida, naturally], and I went off the books, finished eighth [in the Heisman balloting]." He was only third-team All-America, finishing behind Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel of Florida and Jake Plummer of Arizona State. It makes for another good sound bite to say that Manning came back just to beat Florida. Wrong again. "It's hard for anybody to beat Florida," Manning says. "I came back to be a senior."
Says Manning's father, Archie, "He's so tired of people telling him that how his whole career will be remembered depends on this one game." That would be too superficial for Peyton, too rooted in some quick-cut, pop-cultural analysis. Peyton Manning. Great player. Couldn't beat Florida. Somebody else's analysis. For him, his career is a montage of many games, and the Gator thing is intensely personal and emotional. "I just want to win so badly," Manning says. "Football is all about team and all about winning. I remember reading something Jimmy Connors said, that he hated losing more than he loved winning. That's me. I want to win this year more than anybody else in the country. I guarantee you that. This isn't just another game, it's huge. It's different from every other game."
Not for his legacy. Not for a bronze trophy. Not because Spurrier makes jokes, but because the opponent is Florida, and because score will be kept.
Manning will be asked to carry a heavy load this time. The tradition of college football is that if a team bangs away at a powerful opponent long enough, that team will someday win. Colorado eventually beat Nebraska in the mid-'80s. Florida State eventually beat Miami in the early '90s. Ascension is not so automatic with Tennessee. The Vols had a terrific shot in '95 with a veteran offensive line, a superb running back (Jay Graham, who finished the season with 1,438 yards but, alas, fumbled twice against Florida) and a dangerous wideout in Joey Kent. They had the Gators beat and messed up. Last year they didn't compete until far too late. The line on Tennessee's graph is running in the wrong direction.
There was some cause for Volunteer hope this year because Florida lost Wuerffel and wideouts Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard to the NFL. The Gators appeared to miss the trio while struggling to a season-opening 21-6 victory over Southern Mississippi, but on Sept. 6 Florida crushed Central Michigan 82-6 in the type of mismatch that has in past seasons heralded further offensive efficiency against better teams. "I call it a confidence-builder." says Spurrier. Junior Jaequez Green, the one returning wideout, and sophomore Jamie Richardson aren't Anthony and Hilliard, but with 17 catches between them in two games, for five touchdowns, they aren't exactly Regis and Kathie Lee either.
There are new wrinkles on offense as well. Junior fullback Jerry Jackson has caught six passes for three touchdowns, and two tailbacks—senior Fred Taylor (207 yards) and Bo Carroll (175 yards), a freshman who has supplanted Green as the fastest man on the squad—have formed an effective ground game. The one wild card is sophomore quarterback. Doug Johnson, Wuerffel's replacement.
He was nervous and spotty against Southern Mississippi but threw seven touchdown passes in the first half against Central Michigan, in a game that even Johnson said was "like a scrimmage, basically." If Tennessee is looking for a soft spot, it could be Johnson's inexperience and inconsistency. Wuerffel was a machine.
Meanwhile, Stoops's defense has embraced his year-old attack system and has swiftly ascended to rank among the best in the country. Fred Weary and converted running back Elijah Williams are ruthless bump-and-run cornerbacks, and the front seven—despite the loss of sophomore tackle Reggie McGrew, who tore a ligament in his right knee on Aug. 30—is possibly the strength of the team. "Those guys," said Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. "They're all so good up there you could just switch the jersey numbers around and nobody would notice." In all, confidence abounds in Gainesville.
"It's not going to happen for Tennessee," says Taylor. "Just not going to happen."
"We told some of their guys during track season last year, they don't have enough speed," says Green.