Florida-Tennessee has had ups and downs, but it has defined my college football experience
As a freshman at the University of Florida, I was arrogant. How could you not be when your first college football experience as a college student was marked by Steve Spurrier unleashing Rex Grossman’s arm on inferior opponents week after week?
I still remember being bored in the stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as we hung 71 on Vanderbilt on an early November Saturday afternoon.
The midseason loss to Auburn was a speed bump. It was an away game, and I actually missed the game (due to some family events). When I heard we lost, I was confused. We lost? How could we lose? But perhaps because I didn’t actually see the game, it didn’t have much of an impact on me.
Florida was never ranked lower than No. 7 in the Top 25 that season even with the Auburn loss.
Then came the Tennessee game in December. The move, of course, was due to September 11th. Originally scheduled for September 15th, the game was postponed. Instead, it was played on Dec. 1.
As we entered the game, it was a given that Florida would win. We were going to win it all. We were good, and we were playing at home to an inferior Tennessee team. Or, so we thought.
Because I botched the student ticket system before my freshman year, I was forced to get tickets on my own each week. For this game, I scored some tickets about 10 rows up in the end zone. Go time.
Over the course of a few hours, Tennessee’s Travis Stephens trampled all over the field and our hearts as he ripped the soul out of my 19-year-old self. His 226 yards on the ground were too much, and the dream was over.
I learned some valuable lessons that night. College football will humble you. If you love college football, you will have your heart broken.
Interestingly, the emotions were so strong that night that it left a permanent mark on my memory. I’ll never forget the crowd that night, or the overwhelming feeling of shock and gloom as we all exited the stadium.
I learned another valuable lesson a few weeks later. Nothing lasts forever (or even more than a year of my four-year college experience).
After smoking Maryland in a bowl game in early January, Steve Spurrier retired. That December night against Tennessee was Spurrier’s last game in the Swamp as Florida’s head football coach.
A couple years later, Ron Zook led us north to Knoxville.
It was my first trip to the football mecca of the fine state of Tennessee, and I scored tickets to the game high up in the corner at Neyland.
The crappy seats didn’t matter. Once again, it was a gorgeous night for football, and I was in awe of the stadium, the environment and that cool river that ran right next to the stadium.
It was 2004. Florida was ranked 11th, and the Vols were ranked 13th. The game would be everything you’d hope for in a rivalry game and then some.
Most fans remember the night by the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty call by Florida WR Dallas Baker at the end of the game. More than a decade later, mention the name to any Florida fan, and they’ll likely respond with “unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.”
It’s unfortunate when a young man cements his legacy to a fanbase in such a manner, but that’s exactly what happened that night for Dallas Baker. Thus is college football.
For me, however, as a fan sitting in the stands that night, the Dallas Baker penalty wasn’t what stuck in my memory. Frankly, it wasn’t clear what happened since I didn’t have television replays and broadcasters explaining to me what had just occurred. Rather, what sticks in my mind still to this day is the James Wilhoit field goal for the win.
I was on the opposite side of the stadium, high up in the corner. The stadium is enormous, and I have average eyesight, so I honestly didn’t see the football go through the uprights. What I did see was a sea of Tennessee orange stand up and cheer. The noise was deafening, and I knew we had lost.
I have to admit. That was a hell of a kick.
I also recall walking out of the stadium dejected and surrounded by what felt like a million Tennessee fans. They were gracious fans! Frankly, I was expecting to get harassed and I experienced quite the opposite. Well done, Vols.
A year later, now out of college, I traveled back to Gainesville for the Florida-Tennessee game of 2005. The reason? We had Urban Meyer.
A few months before I graduated, I heard Urban Meyer speak (he was already on campus in the spring of 2005). It was pretty clear that this dude was something special, and it was common knowledge that Florida was going to get back to being dominant (and I wouldn’t be there to experience it!).
But I was there for Meyer’s first game against Tennessee.
I sat in the stands that night in September 2005, but I don’t remember any specific plays. What I do still recall is the electric atmosphere in the Swamp. And more than anything, I remember the “Urban Meyer” chant by the fans as the clock hit zeros.
I had never heard the crowd chant for Steve Spurrier (or, obviously Ron Zook). But the crowd was chanting “Ur-ban Me-yer” over and over.
It wasn’t necessarily that the fans were elated to beat Tennessee for the first time in a few years, or the fact that a 16-7 victory was overly dominant. No, the fans knew that Urban Meyer was here and Florida football was back. Meyer just passed his first test. The team wasn’t ready yet to compete for championships, but Meyer won his first conference game against a major rival. Ur-ban Me-yer!
The confidence expressed by the crowd that night would be validated in the years to come as Meyer would win two national championships. To me, it all started that night against Tennessee.
That win also started an unbelievable streak of 11 consecutive over the Vols. The streak, now over, is one of the most underrated streaks in Florida football history.
Like all fans, there are a few moments that stay with us during our formative years as a college football fan. It’s hard to find a more formative time for a fan than when you’re on campus, in the stadium week after week.
As a Florida fan, the rivalry with Georgia is great. It’s more of a party than anything. And we hate Florida State. Man, do we hate them.
But to me, Florida-Tennessee is college football. Amazing highs and heartbreaking lows. This is college football.