Tennessee football: Making Neyland Stadium feared again starts with beating Florida
KNOXVILLE — It was once a place as hallowed and revered as any in college football, but for the past decade, playing the Vols in Neyland Stadium isn’t what it used to be for SEC opponents.
For Tennessee, earning back that reputation begins with their annual showdown with Florida, a rivalry game that, like Neyland Stadium, has also lost a lot of its luster.
Saturday’s Florida-Tennessee game will be played under the lights for the first since 2012 (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). Playing a rival at night excited more than a few Vols fans who are desperate for this game to mean something again — and more important — for playing a night game in Neyland Stadium to mean something again.
Beating Florida would do more than put the sting of a Week 1 rout at the hands of West Virginia out of mind. No, Florida isn’t ranked, nor does it resemble anything of the days of old when Steve Spurrier roamed the sidelines and provided plenty of offseason fodder with remarks about UT and the Citrus Bowl. Still, it’s a game Tennessee needs to win for a few reasons.
Since 2008, Tennessee is 45-29 at home, but the Vols are an astonishing 4-18 on their turf versus ranked teams. To put those numbers in perspective, between 1997-2007, the Vols were 59-13 in home games. To get back to that kind of home dominance under Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee needs a statement win against Florida.
The Vols haven’t won consecutive home games against Florida since 1992, which followed a 1990 victory. The Gators are 9-3 at Neyland since then.
Neyland at Night
Even with the tumultuous run that Tennessee has experienced since the firing of Phillip Fulmer in 2008, fan contribution has not at all been the problem. Two instances come to mind when fans filled the stands at Neyland in hopes of contributing to a big upset. The first was 2012, when No. 18 Florida came to town for a nighttime kickoff on ESPN. That was going to be the year.
After thumping N.C. State in Atlanta to open the season, Derek Dooley had the Vols ranked No. 23 and believing that this was the season they would finally beat the Gators. It looked that way for a while, as Tennessee led 20-13 in the second half. Then Florida’s Trey Burton took the snap out of the wildcat formation and raced 80 yards for a touchdown, igniting the Gators’ 37-20, come-from-behind victory.
In 2015, again under the lights and ranked No. 23, Tennessee had the opportunity to prove it had put the years of heartbreak, underachieving and irrelevancy behind them when they played host No. 18 Oklahoma. In one of the loudest recent games in Neyland Stadium, the Vols squandered opportunity after opportunity to put away Baker Mayfield and the Sooners. Eventually, the mistakes came back to bite them as Oklahoma won in overtime, 31-24.
The hunt for a signature home win continued.
What’s at stake
Now, with those years seemingly in the rearview mirror, the Vols will have the opportunity to score a big win in what promises to be an electric atmosphere against Florida. The stakes have been higher, but the game has huge implications for two programs going through a transition.
It’s especially crucial to either team’s hopes of reaching a bowl game — and being rewarded with those 15 extra practices.
Both teams are 2-1. There might not be four more victories on the schedule if they lose Saturday night. Barring upsets that look unfathomable right now, if the Vols lose Saturday, they could be 2-5 when they head to Columbia to face South Carolina. That starts a closing stretch that ends with Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and at Vanderbilt.
A 2-5 Vols team would have to finish 4-1 to become bowl eligible.
With two new coaches, beating Florida also could start a new chapter in the series, which the Gators have largely dominated since the the conference split into two divisions in 1992.
But more than that, it could put future SEC opponents on notice that venturing into Neyland Stadium is daunting again.
From the outside looking in, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry returning to prominence is good for the SEC — and so is one of college football’s most iconic and historic venues becoming a feared place to play again.