As University of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin noted, it took a team effort to get the Gators back on the football field for a game that annually is one of the most important on the schedule.
Florida and the SEC announced shortly before noon Tuesday that their game against Tennessee on Saturday will be played, after consultations with the SEC, the city of Gainesville, Alachua County, university staff and representatives of first responders in the area.
The game between the 24th-ranked Gators (0-1) and the No. 23 Vols (2-0) will be at 3:30 p.m. on CBS. The Gators have won six in a row over the Vols in the Swamp and, prior to last year’s loss in Knoxville, had an 11-game winning streak over UT.
It also is an important game for quarterback Feleipe Franks, who became the first Florida freshman to start an opening game in nearly three decades on Sept. 2 in a 33-17 loss to Michigan, in Dallas. Although Franks was pulled in that game for graduate senior Malik Zaire, Gators coach Jim McElwain announced the following week Franks was still his starter.
Facing Tennessee also means Franks will have made his first two career starts against ranked teams. Michigan was No. 11 at the time of the game against Florida.
Hurricane Irma swept through Central Florida late Sunday and early Monday, causing damage, including flooding, downed trees and power outages. UF had to cancel its home opener against Northern Colorado, and the forecast and possible affects put the Tennessee game at risk.
But there was no structural damage to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or the Gators’ practice facility, all players and their families were reported safe Monday night, and Stricklin said the school received enough assurances the necessary personnel for traffic control, security and safety would be available for the game.
“There has been a tremendous amount of cooperation between local authorities, the Southeastern Conference and the Tennessee athletic program throughout this process, and we are grateful for these strong partnerships,” Stricklin said in a statement. “While we know how important it is for this campus and the Gainesville community to host a game, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those that have been impacted by the storm, and we are thankful for the support Floridians have received during this time.”
The final decision was in the hands of the SEC office, a change made after last year’s controversy with the postponement of Florida’s home game against LSU. When the Tigers refused to give up a non-conference game in November to play the game in Gainesville, the Gators bought out their non-conference opponent on the same date (Presbyterian) and played the game in Baton Rouge, La., at LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Florida won that game 16-10 and feelings between the two schools remain strained.
The trade-off is that Florida will host LSU the next two seasons.
The acrimony during the negotiations was so intense that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey took over control of re-scheduling games affected by weather. Sankey said in a statement the league office appreciated the quick damage assessment by city and county officials to enable him to make a decision five days out from the game.
“The University of Florida has been diligent in assessing the impact of Hurricane Irma on the Gainesville community and has made a thoughtful decision in moving forward with the game,” Sankey said in a statement. “We appreciate the communication, coordination and cooperation among the many agencies and groups necessary to produce a game in a safe environment. Our prayers remain with the people of Florida as well as Texas as they recover from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.”
Tennessee athletic director John Currie said Florida kept lines of communication open throughout the weekend, leading up to the final decision.
“We appreciate the communication from both our friends in Gainesville and the conference office as this assessment was made,” Currie said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by Hurricane Irma and other recent storms throughout the SEC footprint, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to travel to Florida this weekend.”
UF is advising fans that due to continued cleanup in the area, traffic may be heavier than usual and they are encouraged to arrive early. The university also wants fans to enter the stadium earlier to reduce lines at the gates.
The university also will provide an opportunity at the game for fans to contribute to hurricane relief efforts. More details will be provided later in the week.