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September 19, 2013

Florida-Tennessee battle goes beyond field

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Time feels like it stands still between a loss and the next game, and neither Florida nor Tennessee wants to remember its most recent disappointing performance any longer than needed.

The two SEC programs both looked out of sorts the last time out in losses to Miami and Oregon, respectively, and Saturday's game in Gainesville is an opportunity for one of the two teams to rebound with a win.

While an always-important conference victory is at stake, the Gators are also hosting some very high-profile recruits -- headlined by five-star defensive end Lorenzo Carter, visiting from Norcross (Ga.) High, and joined by a quartet of four-star prospects inside the Rivals100 presented by Under Armour. Defensive back Jamal Adams of Lewisville (Texas) Hebron, Joliet (Ill.) Plainfield South linebacker Clifton Garrett as well as New Orleans (La.) Edna Karr teammates wide receiver Speedy Noil and defensive end Gerald Willis III are also expected to take official visits this week.

Florida coach Will Muschamp expects the most frequently asked question this weekend will be about playing time.

Muschamp said it is something that comes up often.

"More than you'd think," he said. "Just as far as, 'What's my opportunity to play?' I think it is pretty well outlined for a young man that we'll give you an opportunity, but you need to take advantage of it.

"When a guy is ready to play, we play him. I think you look at D.J. Humphries, last year he started for us at left tackle, Matt Jones started for us at running back in the later part of the season, Antonio Morrison at linebacker, Dante Fowler Jr. at defensive end, Jonathan Bullard defensive end started some games, Marcus Roberson, Vernon Hargreaves III; I mean the proof is there - if a guy is ready to play, we play him to give us an opportunity to be successful."

Florida currently has 14 verbal pledges, and three of its highest-rated commits will take an unofficial to help lure others to join them.

The slate of games for the fourth weekend of college football is one lacking a major, headlining game, and it also has fewer contests than the last three weekends that could decide recruiting battles. The lone game between top 25 programs happens in the Pac-12 where No. 23 Arizona State will play against No. 5 Stanford. The second-most interesting game for recruiting battles is back in the SEC with LSU hosting undefeated Auburn.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell weighs in on both games and points out that the Sun Devils may have the most to gain in their contest.

"Arizona State has been moving into California, and this is a game that could boost its profile," he said. "The team got lucky last week against Wisconsin, but in eight weeks it will be a win on the resume, and following it up with a statement against Stanford would be huge.

"This is the best class in Arizona in the time I have covered recruiting, so getting a marquis win would just add some juice to the program. For Stanford, it is expected to win and so it will be checking a box. The two don't often compete for the same players, but it would be a win against a ranked program that is on the rise."

The state of Louisiana is even more loaded than Arizona this year, and players such as Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis III are already looking around, as is River Ridge (La.) John Curtis receiver Malachi Dupre, New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine running back Leonard Fournette and Monroe (La.) Neville.

LSU didn't offer Monroe (La.) Ouachita Parish receiver Cameron Sims and then missed out on his best friend Cameron Robinson of West Monroe (La.) High to Alabama.

Farrell thinks this is a game that is a must-win, statement type contest for the home team.

"LSU has to be peddle to the metal at all times right now," he said. "Losing Robinson was hard, and if the rest of those guys get out it would be bad news for them. I think LSU has to win and win, and then win.

"There are some guys that cross over with offers, and Auburn is starting off hot, so coming out of this with a win would only add fuel to what Gus Malzahn and that staff are doing. This is a very interesting game, for sure."

Four-star Davidson (N.C.) Day quarterback Will Grier, Homestead (Fla.) High receiver Ermon Lane and running back Dalvin Cook from Miami (Fla.) Central will be on the sidelines.

The only crossover player who will be looking at both teams is Garrett, who is scheduled to be in Knoxville on Oct. 4.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that while there may only be one recruiting battle emerging in this contest, it is still a big game for both programs.

"I think this is a weekend that as National Signing Day approaches will look back at this as one that was make or break for Florida," Farrell said. "I think Florida leads for Adams and Carter; I think they are in the mix for Garrett and are probably long-shots right now for Noil and Willis, but they still need to impress them all. This is an atmosphere game; if the fans are out there booing the team because it struggles on offense or if they lose it could be a fall-apart situation for the group that will be on campus.

"On the Tennessee side of this I think there is some impact, but it is minimal. The Vols class is pretty full, and I think it will stick together regardless because of what everyone thinks of Butch Jones. But for players like Garrett, and more importantly Josh Malone, if the team goes out and gets clubbed like it did in Oregon it may be time to start focusing on retention of the current class and recruiting for the class of 2015."

Jones said that part of the reason for his team's offensive struggles in the opening weeks is that the timing with receivers and quarterbacks was just not there yet.

The Volunteers have also showed a willingness to play freshmen, and receiver Marquez North has been a big part of the offense.

Jones has been patient with his development.

"Marquez is going through that transformation of a true freshman," he said. "He's extremely talented ... we put him on the track, and he's a 4.4 40 (yard dash) guy. He can run, he's physical, but he's still learning the little nuisances of how to create separation, how to get released from the line of scrimmage.

"He's playing against two NFL corners on Saturday. They're going to be in his face pressing him up. I see him getting better and better, but that's the luxury that we have. We have to play true freshmen and they have to grow up in a hurry."

Another part of the problem that Jones has seen through two weeks is that his team just doesn't have the vaunted SEC speed that other elite programs have.

"That's one thing that we have to address and there's only so many things that you can do to make your team faster," he said. "So, you can have guys that run 4.4, 4.5 on the stopwatch, but they don't play that fast. A lot of times it's the mental aspect. Football is a game of instincts and reactions. I didn't think that we reacted as quickly as we needed to. We have to develop our speed and then, obviously, recruiting. Recruiting speed is at a premium. We must get faster to compete in our conference and at a national level. We must get faster."

Farrell said that the problem with identifying the need and filling the need brings up a chicken-and-egg question.

"Recruiting is based on winning, but how can you win without the players?" he said. "Tennessee is in a position that it just needs to show that it is moving in the right direction so that coaches can keep selling a vision and a message. Florida does not have that luxury because Muschamp has had time. It needs to win these games or it will backslide."

It is a point not lost on the Florida coach.

"We're 1-1," Muschamp said. "So it's not where we need to be ... as a team."

Dallas Jackson is the national columnist for Rivals.com. You can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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