5 reasons Florida has owned Tennessee
It’s Tennessee-Florida week, which for SEC football fans of a certain age, used to mean SEC East title implications and a national spotlight. Before there was “LSU-Bama,” there was “Tennessee-Florida.”During the Spurrier tenure at Florida, the Gators and Vols played 5 games where both teams entered ranked in the top 5 of the AP or Coaches Poll.
In the past 50 years of college football, only Miami-Florida State in the ’90s, Florida-Florida State in the ’90s, Michigan-Ohio State during the “10-year War” in the ’70s and LSU-Alabama in the 2010s have matched that accomplishment. That’s a taste of how big this game used to be.
In fact, the last time this game was played in the month of December, Phil Fulmer gave the speech of his life (below) and Tennessee upset No. 2 Florida 34-32, capturing the SEC East and ruining Florida’s national championship dreams in the process. The game was one of the greatest SEC football games ever played, and SDS did a great job of discussing it in podcast form earlier this year.
In many ways, that game was a harbinger of the changes that would come to the SEC.
It proved to Steve Spurrier’s final game in The Swamp as Florida’s head coach, as the legendary Florida player and head coach left to coach the NFL’s Washington franchise a month later. The win sent Tennessee back to the SEC Championship game for the first time since their national championship season of 1998. Heavy favorites, the Vols were upset by an upstart LSU program headed by some guy named Nick Saban. Saban’s Tigers had lost to Florida by 40 points earlier in the season and it is decidedly unlikely the rematch would have gone much better.
Instead, LSU emerged SEC champions, setting the table for Saban’s first national championship and positioning him as the coach who would define SEC football in the early 21st century. Meanwhile, the loss may have marked the beginning of the end for Fulmer at Tennessee. Yes, the Vols returned to Atlanta multiple times after that season. But they never arrived in Atlanta with as good a team as they had in 2001, and it’s now been 13 years and counting since the Volunteers represented the SEC East in the SEC Championship game.
Fulmer’s been gone, at least as Tennessee’s head football coach, since 2008. A big reason for Fulmer’s dismissal by then UT athletic director Mike Hamilton was his struggles against Florida. Fulmer and the Vols beat the Gators just twice after that magical December afternoon in The Swamp in 2001, and when Fulmer stepped down, the Vols had dropped 4 straight to the Gators, including the previous 2 to Urban Meyer’s teams by an average of 31 points. The hope was a change of direction would turn the tide. It hasn’t.
Florida has now won 14 of 15 against Tennessee, turning what was once a very competitive rivalry that tilted creamsicle orange to an uneven rivalry Florida now leads by 9 games all time.
Here are 5 big reasons the Gators have owned the Vols over the last decade and a half. Please note that due to time constraints, we limited the list to only 5 and eliminated reasons 6-12,256.
It’s difficult to think of one player changing the fortunes of a rivalry more than Tim Tebow changed the trajectory of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in the mid-2000s. The Vols had won 3 of 5 against the Gators and appeared poised to make it 4 of 6 in 2006, having really limited Florida’s traditional run game and stifled Florida’s starting quarterback Chris Leak.
Tennessee led by as many as 10 points in the 2nd half at a thunderous Neyland Stadium when Meyer decided to use his freshman quarterback Tim Tebow as a battering ram to help the Gators, who were struggling on 3rd-and-short, grind out first downs. It worked. Tebow played only 7 snaps, but 4 of them were runs for first downs on 3rd- and 4th-and-short, the most famous of which came on a 4th down on what would prove to be Florida’s winning touchdown drive. The Gators won 21-20.
A year later, Tebow kicked off his Heisman campaign in style by crushing the Vols 59-20. Tebow accounted for 360 total yards of offense and 4 touchdowns in a game that was close for 2 quarters but saw Florida run off 24 unanswered points to run away in the second half.
In 2008, Tebow and Florida weren’t as dominant, but were plenty good enough in Knoxville, with Tebow again producing 2 touchdowns in a 24-point Florida victory.
Finally, in 2009, Tebow completed the career sweep of Tennessee by rushing for 76 yards and a touchdown and spoiling Lane Kiffin’s only dip into the Florida-Tennessee rivalry waters. All told, the Gators Heisman Trophy winner simply overwhelmed the Vols for 4 seasons, turning the tables on a rivalry that Tennessee fans felt they had finally reclaimed from Steve Spurrier before Tebow’s arrival on the campus in Gainesville.
Burton breaks Dooley’s back
Derek Dooley had all the right stuff, résumé-wise, to lead Tennessee back to national prominence. A southern lawyer and gentleman with a national championship pedigree tutoring under Nick Saban at LSU, Dooley had more than the right last name to coach in the SEC. He was highly-regarded in coaching circles, especially as an offensive innovator. His Louisiana Tech teams weren’t great, but they were solid offensively, and given what had occurred in Ruston before Derek Dooley, a 17-20 career mark with the program’s first bowl win in three decades was excellent.
By 2012, Dooley, who played the part of Vols renaissance man, too, with his well-mannered interviews and sartorial splendor in orange sideline pants, appeared to have the Vols on the cusp of a breakthrough. The Vols entered the Florida game ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since the Fulmer era and with College GameDay in town, led the Gators for most of 3 quarters. Leading 20-13 late in the 3rd quarter, the Vols had Florida backed up deep in their own territory. That’s when Trey Burton, playing in the wildcat due to the ineffectiveness of Florida starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, broke the Vols’ hearts.
That was Burton’s 2nd TD run of the night, and it sparked a 24-0 Florida run to close the game. The Vols never recovered, falling out of the Top 25 and failing to reach a bowl game for the next 3 seasons. Dooley was dismissed before the 2012 season-finale.
Will Muschamp sends “all those people home disappointed”
If you are sensing a theme here, you should.
Florida owns this rivalry not so much for systemic reasons — though save the Butch Jones era, Florida has managed to recruit slightly better than the Vols for the last 15 or so years — but for specific ones. Mainly, almost every time it appears that Tennessee is set to seize momentum in the rivalry again, Florida finds a way to win and the Vols find a way to lose.
Florida has managed to maintain its dominance over Tennessee despite having their worst decade as a program from a winning percentage standpoint since the 1970s. No game better illustrates this than Will Muschamp’s win over the Vols in 2014.
Tennessee was favored by a touchdown despite a 2-2 record. It’s difficult to understate just how badly Driskel played under center as well: Florida’s junior quarterback was 11-of-23 for 59 yards and 3 interceptions before finally getting the hook from Will Muschamp in the 4th quarter with the Gators trailing 9-0.
Enter Treon Harris, who managed to find Matt Jones on a wheel route to set up 1 Florida touchdown and then move the Gators from the shadow of their own goal posts to Tennessee territory where erratic kicker Austin Hardin buried a 49-yard field goal to give Florida a 10-9 lead they’d never relinquish.
The game is probably best remembered for the embattled Muschamp telling ESPN’s Maria Taylor after the game that he loved seeing Rocky Top go home disappointed. Muschamp was fired later in that season, but he left Gainesville 4-0 against Tennessee.
Grier to Callaway
If Vols fans felt like 2014 was a nightmare, well, there probably aren’t any words (at least that we can print online) to describe how they must have felt about 2015.
The Vols led 17-7 at halftime and 27-14 with only 9 minutes to play when Florida’s offense woke up. Freshman Will Grier led the Gators on a long scoring drive to cut the lead to 6 with 4 minutes remaining. Tennesee then failed to get a first down, with Butch Jones electing to not give Alvin Kamara a single touch on 3 plays, and punted. The Vols appeared to have the Gators stopped, however, forcing a 4th-and-14. Then The Swamp saw magic:
Winning the Dan Mullen sweepstakes
Tennessee and Florida both went searching for head coaches in 2017, after the resignation of Jim McElwain at Florida and the firing of Jones (the only Tennessee head coach to beat Florida in the past 15 years) at Tennessee within weeks of each other that autumn.
Tennessee courted Mullen, who was ready to move on from a happy situation, but one with a limited ceiling, at Mississippi State. Mullen nearly left for Tennessee, but ultimately wasn’t certain it would be his best opportunity, especially with the Florida job also vacant. With Mullen wavering, the Vols set their sights elsewhere, ultimately landing on Greg Schiano.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
Led by longtime Vols fan and rabble-rouser Clay Travis, Vol Nation revolted against then-athletic director John Currie. Despite having a memorandum of understanding reached with Schiano, Currie and the UT administration backed out of the deal. This fostered litigation, and sent Tennessee down a long path that included being turned down by:
- Former offensive coordinator and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe
- Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy
- Cowboys tight end and former Vols All-American Jason Witten (who probably wasn’t ever formerly offered but made it clear he wasn’t coming anyway on Twitter)
- Former assistant Jim Bob Cooter (who wouldn’t even interview)
- Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm
- NC State head coach Dave Doeren (who led to another Vols fan social media revolt)
- Former Texas Tech head coach-turned Sirius XM analyst Mike Leach.
Ultimately Currie was fired for whiffing on all of the above choices. Tennessee then hired Fulmer as athletic director and his pick, Jeremy Pruitt, as head coach. If all of that made your head spin, well, it should.
But keep in mind choice No. 1 for Currie was Mullen, who thought long and hard about it, couldn’t decide, and ultimately bowed out when his old boss Scott Stricklin and Florida swooped in to hand him his dream job 3 autumns ago.
Mullen is now 27-6 in his first 33 games at Florida, a better record to start a tenure than Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier had before him. Pruitt has lost 5 consecutive games and is on the hot seat despite a buyout that doubled this past September when Fulmer gave the head coach an extension — essentially for beating Indiana in a game of tackle football.
Winning the Mullen sweepstakes seems to be the latest blow to the Vols in this once competitive rivalry, and Mullen has returned the favor in kind, winning the first 2 contests with Pruitt by an average of 4 touchdowns.