It might not feel like it, but this is the biggest Florida-Tennessee game in a decade
It’s Florida-Tennessee week.
With only 47 prior meetings between the two southern universities heading into Saturday night’s game at Neyland Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN), this isn’t the most prolific or contested rivalry in the SEC East Division, let alone in the sport. But for the better part of two decades, it was one of college football’s most determinative rivalry games.
Florida-Tennessee used to command national attention. It was an SEC East, national championship landscape-defining clash of the titans that re-energized the tight-collared, antiquated brand of football played in the SEC in the decade prior to the league’s 1990s renaissance. The game annually attracted College GameDay and could have charged rent for its ownership of the coveted 3:30 SEC on CBS spot.
The storylines wrote themselves.
Peyton vs. Danny. Spurrier vs. Fulmer. Winner with the inside track to Birmingham and Atlanta. Loser helpless unless the other somehow stumbled.
The game has lost some of that luster, but it always means something.
The recent memories remain thick and cut as deeply as late summer air.
That’s why Will Grier’s fourth and 14 slingshot of a pass to Antonio Callaway meant so much to the Gators — and was equally crushing to the Vols — in 2015. It’s why Vol Nation shook Neyland to the rafters as Tennessee poured out 30-plus unanswered in 2016, ending an 11-year run of futility against the hated Gators.
It was only a temporary moment of glory for Florida, but ask Butch Jones about the garbage-can fire that engulfed his program after the Gators eked out a 26-20 win on “The Heave to Cleave” as time expired a year ago. He’ll tell you what Florida-Tennessee means.
Florida-Tennessee doesn’t need a national or even regional stamp of approval to be important. College football is a sport that thrives off rivalry games, and Florida-Tennessee’s rivalry bona fides are forever secure.
This one might not feel big, but here’s a fun little secret.
This is the biggest Tennessee-Florida game in at least a decade.
The programs are each at critical, future decade-altering junctures and share too many common threads for it not to be.
Both are historically proud programs that only a year ago cratered, each parting ways with their previous head coaches en route to miserable four-win seasons.
The Vols will run through the T Saturday night carrying a nine-game conference losing streak, having last tasted SEC victory in November of 2016 when they shellacked Missouri in Knoxville.
The Gators weren’t quite as dire in conference in 2017, but they will arrive at Neyland 0-1 in the SEC, having just lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1986. Florida’s starting quarterback, Feleipe Franks, has one win as a starter on the road, and that came in a game in which he was benched.
Both programs have new, young coaches their fan bases want to believe in.
At Tennessee, there is Jeremy Pruitt, the longtime Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher assistant who played a part in winning five national championships at Alabama and Florida State. Only 44, Pruitt was a high school football coach in Alabama the last time this game mattered nationally, but he didn’t even get through his Sunday morning television show without mentioning how excited his football team was going to be to play the Gators.
“When Florida’s got the ball, I bet you they can’t hear with the way our fans are, because the fans are going to be ready for this game, I can tell you that,” Pruitt said Sunday on the Jeremy Pruitt Show.
“I think everyone associated with the University of Tennessee and with this athletic program has to be excited about playing the Gators,” he added.
At Florida, there’s the guy Tennessee’s former athletic director John Currie wanted to hire, Dan Mullen, who instead opted to take the Florida job offered by his old boss, Scott Stricklin.
Currie’s failure to hire Mullen led to the bizarre events of Schiano-gate, which proved to be the death knell to Currie’s tenure as athletic director at Tennessee and ultimately cost the university 2.5 million dollars this spring, demonstrating that Florida-Tennessee has evolved into a rivalry that knows no season.
Mullen, 46, is in his 10th year as an SEC head coach and has seen Tennessee’s slow decline in real time during his tenure at Mississippi State.
But before that, he won two national championships with Urban Meyer at Florida.
Mullen has been around long enough to see the Gators great and the Vols good enough to capture an SEC East title. Mullen has been a part of this rivalry game. He remembers that at Florida, his old boss’ first huge road win came in Knoxville in 2006, when the Gators beat the Vols 21-20 on a late touchdown led by the passing of Chris Leak and the vital fourth-down running of a freshman named Tim Tebow. He knows a road game at Tennessee can be a referendum on culture change.
These are two men who appreciate what Florida and Tennessee football look like at their best but inherited those programs nearly at their worst.
Both inherited fractured cultures, with Tennessee’s crumbling brick by brick under Pruitt’s predecessor and Florida’s collapsing under the weight of off-field scandals, both real and imagined, under Mullen’s.
Both men have rosters that aren’t lean on talent but also haven’t had the coaches in place to properly cultivate it.
Both have started the season with painful losses, whether it was Tennessee once again getting lambasted by Grier (now at West Virginia) or Florida being dominated on both lines of scrimmage by Kentucky.
Both teams have dominated directional schools and Group of 5 schools as well, with Tennessee entering after a 24-0 victory over UTEP and Florida closing a three-game homestand with a 48-10 demolition of Colorado State.
Most of all, both coaches need to win this football game.
They need to win it for practical reasons related to this football season’s goals and, more critically, for foundational reasons as they move ahead in rebuilding proud programs.
In losing to Kentucky, Florida and Mullen have already done something that hasn’t happened since 1986. If they lose in Knoxville Saturday night, they’ll do it again and become the first Gators team since Galen Hall’s 1986 squad to start 0-2 in the SEC. With a trip to the monstrous Mississippi State team Mullen left behind on tap the following week and LSU lurking around the corner, Florida could be staring down the barrel of an 0-4 start to conference play with a defeat to the Volunteers.
Mullen has talked about culture change starting with toughness and relentless effort. Save one inspiring performance against LSU in a home game Joe Alleva stole in 2016, Florida has mostly played like dead fish on the road the past few seasons. Winning a road game in what is certain to be a frenzied environment Saturday night would go a long way toward showing Florida’s level of buy-in and whether Mullen’s mantras of consistency, tenacity and effort are starting to take root.
For Tennessee, they’ll want to avoid losing a 10th consecutive conference game. Arguably more important, Pruitt would like to become the first Tennessee coach since Phil Fulmer to win his first game against the hated Gators. A win for Pruitt in this game would go a long way toward quelling lingering doubts about the hire and injecting needed fact-based optimism into his vision for the future.
The recruiting implications are likewise massive Saturday night, in a way that’s unique to each program’s rebuilding project.
These are two programs playing in the same division engaged in a handful of heated recruiting battles. With both programs looking up in the division to Kirby Smart’s death star at Georgia and in the conference to Saban’s empire at Alabama, every edge matters and every recruit counts. There’s value in walking into a living room and telling a family that your program’s rebuild is going to happen faster. The winner claims those bragging rights Saturday night.
So yes, it’s Florida-Tennessee week.
This football game is a battle about the spirit and strength of two rebuilding projects, the fight to reclaim the winning souls of two programs with rich histories, and which program is ahead in that journey come Saturday evening.
It has been a while since Florida-Tennessee was bigger than that.