Florida vs. Tennessee: Once nationally relevant rivalry has become site of Tennessee horror and heartache
It’s Tennessee-Florida week, which used to mean SEC East title implications and a national spotlight.
Yes, once upon a time when Peyton Manning wore creamsicle orange and Phil Fulmer stalked the sidelines on Rocky Top, Tennessee’s football program commanded national attention. Nowhere was this more true than ahead of the Vols’ annual September tilt with Steve Spurrier and the Gators, who could count on Tennessee being one of the only true foils to their decade-plus of dominance in the SEC during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Before there was “LSU-Bama,” there was “Tennessee-Florida.”
College GameDay came to both campuses for the game on 4 occasions in the ’90s, a testament to the national implications. Both Florida and Tennessee were ranked in every game they played in the 1990s; in 8 of those 10, both were ranked in the Top 10. In fact, 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.
On multiple occasions, Florida vs. Tennessee under Spurrier and Fulmer resulted in a heartbreaking loss that derailed a season with national championship aspirations. Most notably, Florida’s upset of Peyton Manning and Tennessee in 1997, a game Paul Finebaum still believes cost Manning the Heisman Trophy. The favor was repaid in Tennessee’s gargantuan December upset of No. 2 Florida in 2001, a game that still haunts Gators fans, may have cost Rex Grossman the Heisman Trophy and likely cost Spurrier a shot at the Miami Hurricanes in a Rose Bowl national championship. That was the last game Steve Spurrier coached in The Swamp — at least as head coach of the Gators.
In other words, this was the game of the decade in the SEC in the 1990s and one of the best rivalries in the sport.
On paper, Saturday’s contest doesn’t stack up to those storied games. The Vols remain mired in the malaise that has defined this decade on Rocky Top. Tennessee is 1-2 in Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt, including the opening day loss to lowly Georgia State, where Rocky Top hit Rocky Bottom.
With Phil Fulmer now the school’s Athletic Director, questions are being asked as to how long Pruitt — who when hired was hardly Tennessee’s first, second or even third choice — will get to carry out his rebuild.
But it isn’t just the Vols being in perpetual rebuild mode that has taken the luster off this rivalry. Florida has taken its share of lumps this decade as well, which, regardless of how this season closes, will be Florida’s worst decade of football from a record perspective since the 1970s.
The easiest way to dull the edges of a once-sharp, shiny rivalry is to see both programs spend a decade mired in mediocrity.
Despite their struggles, the Gators’ dip has felt less permanent than Tennessee’s. Florida’s had flashes this decade, including 2 trips to Atlanta and an 11-win Sugar Bowl season in 2012. Tennessee has only been to 4 bowl games this decade, and its high-water mark as a program since their last trip to Atlanta (2007) was probably an Outback Bowl win over Northwestern in 2015. And today, while Tennessee once again ponders whether it fumbled a coaching hire, the Gators appear to again be an ascending program under Mullen.
As it relates to the Tennessee-Florida game, Florida’s state of rebuild being “less bad”has shown on the scoreboard. From 2005-2015, Florida won every football game they played against Tennessee, including 7 by double digits.
In fact, even when the Gators appeared to be the less complete football team, they’ve found ways to defeat the Volunteers.
In 2013, Florida lost 8 games — its worst season since going 0-10-1 in 1979. No matter. They still buried Tennessee 31-17 in The Swamp.
In Knoxville in 2014, Tennessee led most the game in a defensive struggle that saw Florida’s starter Jeff Driskel post one of the most grotesque stat lines in the history of quarterbacking: 11-23 for 59 yards with 3 interceptions. Florida put freshman Treon Harris — yes, Treon Harris — into the game in the 4th quarter and rallied to win 10-9, a victory that resulted in one of the more epic head coach postgame interview troll jobs in the history of the sport:
In 2015, Butch Jones’s “brick-by-brick” rebuild of the Volunteers appeared to be finally set to reap benefits, with the Vols preseason favorites to win the SEC East and finally snap a decade of futility against the Gators. Florida had a freshman quarterback in Will Grier and a young offensive line and for a while, the game in The Swamp went according to plan for Jones and the Vols, who led 27-14 with 5 minutes to play in the 4th quarter. The Gators rallied for a score and forced a stop, but facing 4th-and-14 in their own territory with 90 seconds remaining, it appeared the Vols’ misfortune was finally set to end. Then this happened:
Tennessee did finally beat Florida a season later, thanks to a furious 2nd-half rally led by Joshua Dobbs, but Vols fans joy would only last a season before it was back to what can only be characterized as astonishing heartbreak.
The Gators won only 4 games in 2017, and appeared ready to cough up one at home to Tennessee in 2017, having blown a 10-point lead in the final 5 minutes. Tennessee’s John Kelly was a wrecking ball, Florida’s defense was exhausted and not a rational soul in the stadium felt like the Gators would win in overtime. Of course, because Feleipe Franks can throw a football 70 yards on a rope — and because Tennessee somehow didn’t play the right defense — there wasn’t overtime.
There’s not enough Tennessee whiskey and George Jones songs to describe or wash away that sadness.
And these are just a few examples of the misery inflicted by the Gators to Tennessee over the past decade, when a Gators program in its own stages of sadness and slow rebuild has found solace in rubbing salt in the wound of their once-proud divisional rival to the north.
On paper, the Vols don’t appear to have much of a chance of avoiding more heartache this Saturday in The Swamp.
Then again, Florida’s wins over Miami and Kentucky continue to prove that this isn’t a Gators team with a large margin for error. Jeremy Pruitt doubtlessly knows Florida’s weaknesses, and he’s a great defensive mind who knows he gets to face a backup quarterback making his first career start. The Vols have nothing to lose, and should enter with a sense of purpose and belief. In the old days, that was a recipe for Tennessee glory and a big Orange upset.
But the old days are long gone.