Phillip Fulmer put Tennessee's Alabama demons to bed just in time to awaken new ones in Gainesville. The Vols had beaten the Gators during Fulmer's interim stint as head coach in 1992, but since then this new rivalry belonged solely to Florida. Both teams were playing at the height of college football's elite, but since the Vols couldn't beat the Gators, the highs in Gainesville reached four SEC Championships and a national title from 1993-1997, while the highs in Knoxville were mostly involved with the Citrus Bowl and backing into Atlanta when the Gators lost twice.
The Vols' struggles with Florida in their five year losing streak was just as painful as the previous losing streak against Alabama, but in a different way: Florida wasn't breaking Tennessee hearts in the game's final minute, they were eating them alive from the opening kickoff.
- 1993: Heath Shuler and what is still the best statistical offense in UT football history fall behind 21-0 in Gainesville and can't quite catch back up, losing 41-34. The Vols will finish the season in the Citrus Bowl and ranked #11, Florida will win the SEC, the Sugar Bowl and finish #4.
- 1994: After Jerry Colquitt tore his ACL on the seventh play of the season, Todd Helton plays under center and watches #1 Florida overwhelm the Vols 31-0 in Knoxville in a game Tennessee simply never had a chance to win. The rebuilding Vols will finish in the Gator Bowl and ranked #24, Florida will win the SEC, return to the Sugar Bowl and finish #7.
- 1995: Peyton Manning came out of the gate like a man who was going to own the state of Florida, leading the Vols to a 30-14 second quarter lead in Gainesville. It was never the same for Peyton against Florida after that: two Jay Graham fumbles and a sudden downpour led to an avalanche of Gator touchdowns and a shocking 62-37 loss. Tennessee went to the Citrus Bowl and finished #3, Florida played for the National Championship and finished #2.
- 1996: Florida just keeps playing the same tune from the second half in '95, jumping to a 35-0 lead in Knoxville and winning 35-29. Tennessee goes to its third Citrus Bowl in four years and finishes the year at #9. Florida wins the National Championship.
- 1997: Peyton Manning's final chance falls apart under the Gators' blitz with Jamal Lewis still on the bench, 33-20. Florida finally loses twice and allows Tennessee to win the SEC and play in the Bowl Alliance Championship Game, but the Gators still finish the year ahead in the polls at #4 to the Vols' #7.
Tennessee was very good in the mid-90s. Florida was great.
When Peyton Manning and friends graduated following the 1997 season, the general consensus was that the Vols had their chance and got an SEC title out of it, but now a rebuilding project would ensue and it would be back to the SEC pack, while Florida would stay in their own upper echelon.
Ivan Maisel and Sports Illustrated gave the Vols more credit than most, but forever preserved on their pages is this quote as the 1998 season prepared to unfold:
"After five years of humiliation, not even the loudest braggart in orange overalls honestly believes Tennessee will beat Florida this season."
2. 1998: #6 Tennessee 20 - #2 Florida 17 (OT) (Knoxville)
Tennessee survived at Syracuse in the season opener 34-33, but the cold reality on Monday morning was that the defense gave up 445 yards, and Tee Martin had gone 9 of 26 for 143 yards. One game into the season, the Vols felt fortunate to be 1-0 and the outcome against the Gators looked bleak. Exactly how many times could we give the ball to Jamal before his legs fell off? 60?
What's more, this wasn't your older brother's Florida team: Danny Wuerffel and a trio of names that still make me cringe (Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green) had all left, replaced in Gainesville by Jevon Kearse and a nasty, nasty defense. With Bob Stoops leading the charge as defensive coordinator, the '98 Gators would eventually allow only 12.8 points per game, which would allow them to win games while quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer were still learning the ropes. On this night in Knoxville, Steve Spurrier elected to rotate his quarterbacks not just every series, but sometimes on every play.
So a Tennessee team playing without the pressure of enormous national expectations nor for the salvation of Peyton Manning's legacy took the field for an 8:00 PM CBS national telecast. Most were exepcting little from Tee Martin or the defense, and the nation at large was expecting the sixth Gator victory over the Vols in a row.
"Wait, this isn't the way this usually goes..."
It sure looked like they were right early on.
The Gators drove to the one yard line in the first quarter, and as they prepared to strike first everyone in Neyland Stadium resigned themselves to that old familiar feeling: Florida is going to take us out of the game quickly, and let's start thinking about Orlando.
But then, Al Wilson forced a fumble as the Gators were going into the end zone, and Tennessee recovered for a touchback. Hmmmm.
Florida drove to first and goal again, but this time came away with only a field goal. Two trips inside the Tennessee 10 yard line in the first quarter, and only three points. Hmmmm.
Offensively, it was already apparent at this point that the Vols and Martin were going to struggle. The Gators stacked the line and keyed on Jamal, and Tee lacked the experience to take advantage. So in a 3-0 ballgame late in the first quarter, the Vols were at their own 43 yard line and the Gators again set their sights on Jamal.
Instead, Cutcliffe called for the FB dive, and Shawn Bryson went exploding through the hole.
Bryson might be the fastest fullback to ever wear the orange, because when he got through the secondary, there was no catching him from behind. Bryson went 57 yards for the touchdown, and the Vols led Florida 7-3. It was the first time Tennessee had been ahead in this rivalry in three years.
Good things kept happening. Al Wilson, in perhaps the most dominant individual defensive performance in Tennessee Football history, forced his third fumble of the night, which the Vols converted for three points in the second quarter to make it 10-3. And suddenly, the pressure shifted from Tee Martin to Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer.
It didn't have to be this close, part one
Slowed by three fumbles, the Gators were still down 10-3 with three minutes left in the first half and no timeouts. Undeterred, Florida drove 67 yards in those three minutes - including a 3rd and 22 conversion - and tied the game on a touchdown pass with :20 left in the half. All the good the Vols had done in the first half still wouldn't leave them in front in the locker room.
It had been three years since a UT-UF game was competitive at halftime. But at the same time, the Vols had only 10 points off 3 Florida turnovers, the defense had just given up that long drive, and the Tennessee offense - outside of Bryson's run - wasn't getting anything done. All signs pointed to Florida turning it around just as soon as they quit being kind to the Vols.
Instead, Florida fumbled again in the third quarter, their fourth turnover of the night (and the first one that wasn't directly caused by Al Wilson). But again the Vols got no points, and midway through the period that same old "it's just a matter of time" feeling began to creep in. Florida had been as good to the Vols as they were going to be. From this point on, Tennessee was going to have to make things happen on their own.
The one play we had to make
A David Leaverton punt pinned Florida at their own four yard line, and the Tennessee defense kept them there. When the Gators punted back, they committed an incredibly crucial personal foul penalty on the return, giving the Vols 1st and 10 at the Florida 28 yard line.
This was it, and we knew it. You weren't going to get any better field position, Florida couldn't keep turning it over...if the Vols couldn't take advantage of this opportunity, we didn't deserve to win.
It didn't go well at first, with a run for a loss of a yard. But on 2nd and 11 from the Gator 29, Tee Martin and Peerless Price made their one play.
It's really not a great throw, and it's really into double coverage. Tee was in his second start against the best defense he would ever see, and the fact that he finished 7 of 20 for 64 yards is probably admirable, all things considered.
But Peerless was to wide receivers at Tennessee what Jay Graham was to tailbacks: no one made more big catches in big situations. And so here, Price makes an absolutely tremendous adjustment on the ball to get inbetween two Gator defenders, and then absorbs contact and hangs on, coming down in the end zone for six and a 17-10 Tennessee lead. Still a quarter and a half to play.
It didn't have to be this close, part two
On the ensuing drive, the Vols backed Florida up to 3rd and 11 at their own 30, and the Neyland Stadium roar was at its very best. We were ready to believe. The defense could make it hold up for a quarter and a half. We could actually beat these guys.
Then Travis McGriff burned Dwayne Goodrich for 70 yards down the left sideline.
Tennessee's lead over Florida lasted all of three plays. The Gators tied it right back up at 17-17. There's some great trash talking in this game between Goodrich and McGriff, and while Dwayne would ultimately bring home Defensive MVP honors in the National Championship game, on this night McGriff got the best of him with 9 catches for 176 yards.
Deadlocked at 17-17, the game moved to the fourth quarter.
Tennessee's offense still couldn't move. The Gators had allowed one big play to Bryson and one great catch to Price, but on this night they would surrender no more. Jamal Lewis ran for an extremely tough 82 yards and the Vols barely cracked the 200 yard barrier in total offense, but it wouldn't be the Gator defense that gave this one away, and a string of fourth quarter three and outs proved it.
But with every passing second, the Tennessee Defense was making believers out of everyone wearing orange.
Their legacy begins on this night, sacking Johnson and Palmer five times and holding Florida to -13 yards rushing. And when Tennessee's offense got nothing done in the fourth quarter, Tennessee's defense made sure Florida did the same.
Late in the period, Florida made one final push toward the red zone, knowing that a field goal would likely win it. But with Deon Grant playing center field, the Vols simply would not be beat over the top. As the Gators fired deep over the middle, one of the guys sitting next to me prematurely yelled "Intercepted!", and I remember thinking "Are you blind?! There's no way he'll get to that one." But Grant swept into the picture, and with one hand pulled away Florida's scoring opportunity on one of the best and most important interceptions I've ever seen.
It was a new experience for both teams, with the system just having been put in place in 1996. The Vols got the ball first, and again, the offense only hurt themselves: a holding penalty took 10 yards away and immediately put Jeff Hall in a difficult spot.
But facing 3rd and long and with little chance of converting, Tee Martin made an incredibly smart move: he scrambled, and while he'd never pick up the 19 yards he needed for the first down, he did get 10 of them back, meaning Jeff Hall only had to deal with 41 yards instead of 51. Hall's kick went right down the middle, and the Vols led 20-17.
I've said this before, but there is no more tense situation in sports than a college football overtime where the team playing offense first kicks a field goal. Because then the game can potentially end on every single play of the second session, with instant victory for the offense with a touchdown, and instant victory for the defense with a turnover.
So when Florida got 10 yards and a first down to the 15 yard line on their first play, I remember the tangible feeling of depression: we'd fought so hard, we'd come so close, but now in overtime with a defense that had to be exhausted, there was no way we'd keep Florida out of the end zone from just 15 yards away.
Al Wilson forced three fumbles on the night, but his best play might've been second and 10 from the 15. Wilson jumped all around the defensive line, showing blitz from several different spots before rushing clean through the line at the snap. Jesse Palmer got a three step drop and nothing more, as Wilson hammered him as he threw it away.
Now at 3rd and 10, the Vols needed one more stop. The Gators had a man relatively open in the end zone, but the pass sailed behind him and incomplete. The defense, as they had all night, did their job.
So on walks Collins "we don't put kickers on scholarship at the University of Florida" Cooper, 32 yards away from tying it up and sending the game to a second overtime. 32 yards from the right hash, and all I could think about was making sure we didn't rough him, and how in the world our offense was going to score any points in any of these overtimes. We needed one mistake.
It is still the loudest noise I've ever heard in my entire life. I remember saying "He missed it?!" and not actually hearing any of the words come out of my own mouth.
Then we had this thought of "Let's get the goalposts!" We're 48 rows up in Z11, and got about one foot in the aisle before you looked down and saw that the students had already more than taken care of that. "Alright, cool, they'll get the goalposts!" In the eleven years since, this has become the definitive "Where were you?" Neyland Stadium storytelling game: some got the goalposts, some wanted to put them in the river, others got a piece of them later, others (including us) eventually just ripped chunks out of Shields-Watkins Field. And everybody smiled for days.
We stayed instead and Gator chomped every single Florida fan that walked past us back up the aisle, all in stunned disbelief wearing The Collins Cooper Face. And we took our time. My Dad, at one point, says "My arms are tired, but keep chomping - I have no idea when we'll get to do this again." I kept looking at them, with my 17 year old arrogance, and yelling "Citrus Bowl!"
As it turns out, the Gators would earn an at-large bid to the BCS and play in the Orange Bowl.
The Vols would do them one better.