Tennessee vs. Florida: 10 things every Vols fan has to know about the rivalry
Tennessee and Florida don’t have the history of the Tennessee/Alabama rivalry, but the hatred that Vols fans hold for the Gators burns just as strong, if not more so.
For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the winner of this game always seemed to have the inside track in the SEC East. And while Georgia has surpassed both programs, this game still matters, even if the Vols and Gators aren’t at their previous peaks.
Before you head to the tailgate or sports bar or family function, make sure you are up to speed on this rivalry.
Here are 10 things every Vols fan has to know about the Florida rivalry.
1. Jabar Gaffney dropped the ball
In 2000, when the blood battle between UT and UF was really at its peak, the game was decided on a controversial call that still brings forth a visceral reaction from Tennessee fans.
If instant replay existed then, Gaffney’s “cough” grab “cough cough” with 14 seconds left likely would have been overturned. Instead, it gave Florida a 27-23 win.
Jesse Palmer’s pass hit Gaffney in the chest while Gaffney stood in the end zone and almost immediately dropped to the turf. But line judge Al Matthews said he had control.
Matthews remains a hated man in Knoxville.
2. 51 meetings
Despite playing their first game against each other all the way back in 1916, Tennessee and Florida have only had 51 meetings. The Gators lead the series 31-20.
This didn’t become an annual event until the SEC expanded and went to divisional play in 1992.
By the way, Tennessee won that first game 106 years ago 24-0. If you were there, let us know how dominant the Vols defense was and if there was a lot of horse and buggy traffic.
3. Spurrier leaves Tennessee, becomes Florida legend
Steve Spurrier remains the pride of Johnson City, Tennessee. A 3-sport standout at Science Hill HS, Spurrier wasn’t offered a football scholarship by UT because the Vols were still running the Wing-T offense, and Spurrier wanted to throw the football.
Spurrier chose instead to attend the University of Florida. He won a Heisman there in 1966, then beat Tennessee in 8 out of 12 meetings as the Gators’ head coach.
Tennessee sportsbooks are live in the Volunteer state since November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
4. Speaking of Steve Spurrier …
In 2001, the Tennessee/Florida game was moved to December following the 9/11 attacks.
Both teams entered The Swamps at 9-1, but Tennessee was more than a 2 TD underdog. Travis Stephens ran wild, leading the Vols with 226 yards and 2 scores as UT upset Florida 34-32. The loss pushed Tennessee into the SEC Championship Game against LSU (we won’t delve into that) and cost Florida a potential shot at a national title.
As for Spurrier, it wound up being the final game he coached in The Swamp. He stepped aside after the season, coached Washington in the NFL, then in 2005 went back to college to coach at South Carolina.
5. From goat to hero …
The 2004 meeting was one of the wildest in the Tennessee/Florida series.
A Neyland Stadium record crowd of 109,061 (a record that will never be broken due to stadium seating reductions) saw these rivals go back and forth all night. A Jayson Swain TD reception late in the 4th quarter brought Tennessee within 28-27.
But sophomore kicker James Wilhoit pushed the extra point right, and Tennessee was in serious trouble.
Florida tried to run out the clock, but Gators receiver Dallas Baker was flagged for a personal foul, and the SEC officials incorrectly stopped the clock. That good fortune allowed a freshman QB named Erik Ainge to march the Vols down the field, and give Wilhoit a chance at redemption.
Wilhoit drilled a 50-yard FG with 6 seconds left, giving the Vols an improbable 30-28 win.
Ron Zoon was Florida’s head coach that night in 2004. In 1991, he was a Gators assistant who received a fax from a friend named Jack Sells.
You see, Sells was a former Tennessee assistant coach who had been fired after an investigation into rules violations. So, Sells went to Kinko’s on The Strip, faxed hand drawn Tennessee plays to his buddy Zook … right before Tennessee was making the trip to Gainesville.
Florida won the game 35-18, and went on to win the SEC title.
Well, a Kinko’s employee wasn’t having it, and notified UT along with some media outlets. It turned into a big story.
As for Sells, he got death threats, was punched in the face by a Vols fan at a bar, sued Kinko’s for “violating his privacy” and eventually settled out of court.
It just means more.
7. Dickey plays both sides
There might not be anyone that knows more about both Tennessee and Florida than Doug Dickey.
From 1951-1953 Dickey played defensive back and quarterback at Florida.
In 1964 he was hired at Tennessee’s football coach, a position he held for 6 years before leaving … to take the Florida job. He coached the Gators for 9 years.
And then in 1985, Dickey was picked to be Tennessee’s athletics director. He worked in that role until 2002.
Dickey played a major role in both athletic departments as a player, coach and athletics director.
8. The beginning of Tebowmania
In 2006, Tim Tebow was a backup QB at Florida. The Vols and Gators were playing a tight game at Neyland Stadium.
Midway through the 4th quarter, the Vols were clinging to a 20-14 lead. Florida faced 4th-and-1 from the Tennessee 28. The crowd was at a fever pitch as Tebow entered the game. He was a short-yardage specialist at the time. Tebow picked up 2 yards, pumped his fist as he ran back off the field.
Chris Leak would then throw a game-winning TD pass to Dallas Baker.
Tebowmania was born that night.
9. 63 yards… 63 yards…
The Vols have lost 16 of the past 17 games against Florida, but nothing sums up that futility like their 2015 and 2017 losses in Gainesville.
In 2015, the Vols dominated the game. A Jalen Hurd TD run with 10:19 gave the Vols a 26-14 lead, but Tennessee head coach Butch Jones decided to kick an extra point instead of going for 2. After the game, he said that decision was made after referencing the “chart.”
With less than 2 minutes to go, Florida was down 27-21, facing 4th-and-14 from their own 37. For some reason, the Vols only rushed 3 defenders. Will Grier had all day, threw a pass to Antonio Callaway that would have been good enough for a first down. But it got worse for Tennessee as Callaway raced the entire way for the go-ahead score. The 63-yard pass play gave Florida a 28-27 lead.
A 55-yard FG attempt from Aaron Medley narrowly missed, and the Vols lost a game they should have won.
Fast forward 2 years. Tennessee overcame multiple physical and mental errors to have the game tied at 20. With 9 seconds left, Florida had the ball on its own 37. The game seemed destined for overtime.
But Gators QB Feleipe Franks took the snap, escaped the rush, rolled out, and saw that Tyrie Cleveland had a step on Tennessee’s Micah Abernathy. Franks planted and heaved it long, Cleveland secured it as he fell into the end zone, and Florida won at the buzzer 26-20.
The Vols lost both times … on 63-yard passes at the end of the game.
How does that … happen?
10. Pandemonium … Reigns!
Tennessee’s magical 1998 season probably doesn’t end with the Vols hoisting a BCS Championship Trophy in Tempe were it not for their overtime win over Florida.
The Vols were dominated on the stat sheet but got the game to OT thanks to an otherworldly performance from linebacker Al Wilson. He forced 3 Gators fumbles and made 12 tackles. It felt like he was in the Gators’ backfield all night.
In OT, Tennessee kicker Jeff Hall kicked a 42-yard FG, while Florida kicker Collins Cooper pushed his left.
As Tennessee fans stormed the field (the last time a crowd has done so at Neyland Stadium), the Voice of the Vols, John Ward, told his audience that “Pandemonium Reigns!”
Indeed it did.