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Putting Peyton in his Place
Tim Layden
September 22, 1997
That's what Florida coach Steve Spurrier has been doing to Tennessee's Peyton Manning with his one-liners and what the Gators may well do to him on Saturday
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September 22, 1997

Putting Peyton In His Place

That's what Florida coach Steve Spurrier has been doing to Tennessee's Peyton Manning with his one-liners and what the Gators may well do to him on Saturday

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"I'm sure it sounded good to Peyton, standing up there at his press conference, talking about coming back," says Weary. "But now he's actually got to come to the Swamp. That's real. And we're not giving anything to him free."

There is no such bold talk from Knoxville, where Fulmer, a week and a half before the game, refused to make certain players available for interviews with SI, fearing that they would provide Florida with "bulletin-board material." There's nothing wrong with caution, but in Tennessee's case, caution verges on paranoia. When playing Florida in recent years, Tennessee has proved painfully fragile. "One thing goes wrong, they blow up," says Weary.

By limiting access, Fulmer was also idling his team that the game is bigger than life. One of the last major college coaches to take this approach was Ohio State's John Cooper, who before last November's game against rival Michigan made just four players available for interviews because he feared that inflammatory comments made by Buckeyes wideout Terry Glenn might have motivated Michigan's upset win the previous year. Ohio State went on to play tight and lost again. Tennessee already plays tight against Florida.

True, this game has outsized value. Florida and Tennessee are the power programs in the SEC East, playing on the third weekend in September. "Our attitude is, 'If we don't beat them, nobody else will,' " says Cutcliffe. That has held true for four consecutive years and four consecutive Tennessee losses. Spurrier's take on the bulletin board, meanwhile, is dramatically different: "After my comments last year about Florida State beating up on Danny Wuerffel [in the game before the SEC championship], the Seminoles were supposed to really clobber the Gators because they were so mad," says Spurrier, whose team then beat Florida State, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. "You didn't hear too much about that after the game. Old-time coaches used to think talk was part of the game."

Fulmer had a simple explanation: "Before we can talk anymore, we've got to win."

Despite Florida's confidence, it is not the same team that played for the national title in '95 and '96, and Tennessee looks similarly diminished. The Vols haven't found a running back to effectively replace Graham or a receiver to replace Kent. Junior wideout Peerless Price has made a stunning recovery from a broken right fibula suffered in the spring game but still hasn't fully recouped his 4.3 speed or his timing. Tennessee's wideouts, particularly senior Marcus Nash, Manning's most reliable target, will need to be superb to escape Florida's bump-and-run. 'Against Stoops's defense, our timing is everything," says Manning. "Our guys have to get off the line and into their routes."

Tennessee's defense gave up 400 passing yards and 21 second-half points to UCLA on Sept. 6, which translates to the Gators' scoring roughly 17 touchdowns. Senior corner-back Terry Fair, the Vols' best man-to-man defender, is nursing a slight shoulder separation from the UCLA game; it would be a devastating loss if he can't play. Senior linebacker Leonard Little must play like the NFL sack specialist he is projected to be. None of the Vols can quit on the field, as they did in Gainesville two years ago.

In the end it comes back to Manning. His talent is so surpassing that he alone is capable of deciding the game on the strength of his own work, and it would surely be the single, heroic performance that would cement his place in college football history—even if that is not what he seeks. If he isn't great, Tennessee has little chance to win, and the vulgar chants that Manning welcomed two years ago might just rain down on the Swamp. Worse yet, they will ring just true enough to hurt.

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