The only season of the Phillip Fulmer Era that was an admitted rebuilding year was 2000. In every other year with Fulmer as our head coach, we went into the season expecting to compete for championships (that mindset changed on the seventh play of the 1994 season, when Jerry Colquitt blew his knee out, but before that we still expected good things).
But after an insane run from 1995-1999 that saw the Vols go 54-8, win two SEC Championships, play in Bowl Alliance and BCS bowls three times, finish #2 in '95 and win the National Championship in '98...things eventually had to take a step back. We knew it would only be a temporary step back - the Vols again had a shot at the National Championship in 2001 and were preseason #4 in 2002 - but after losing seven players to the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, we needed a year to rebuild.
The Vols got Florida's monkey off their back in 1998 and had a chance to win on the final drive in 1999, but no one was expecting victory against the Gators in 2000. And even though you can argue that 2000 is the weakest overall season for the SEC of the BCS era, the Gators would still win the conference title that year. Though the Vols could replace Jamal Lewis with Travis Henry, the offensive line was a question mark without Cosey Coleman and Chad Clifton. But an even greater question mark was the defense, which lost Shaun Ellis, Raynoch Thompson, Dwayne Goodrich, and Deon Grant. Against the high powered Gators, how would Tennessee's depleted defense stand up?
And while not among those seven players taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, the one guy the Vols would miss more than any other was Tee Martin.
5. 2000: #4 Florida 27 - #9 Tennessee 23 (Knoxville)
A Recruiting "What If?" & A QB Competition x4
After Martin, the job was supposed to belong to Chris Simms, the offensive high school player of the year in the fall of 1998. Simms committed to the Vols, but would later back out and sign with Texas. While the exact reasons that Simms changed his mind remain unclear (and rumors ranged from everything between a perceived racial division on the team to a fear of competition), his late decommitment left the Vols in a tough spot. Tennessee had also received a commitment from AJ Suggs, the high school player of the year in Georgia...but it's also believed that the Vols could've had Ken Dorsey, but did not pursue him fully because Simms was in the fold. By the time Simms decommitted, Dorsey was firm to Miami. At the time, Chris Simms was unanimously hated in Knoxville (more on this later in our series). But more than a decade later, his younger brother now has a chance to be the starting quarterback for the Vols.
The Vols took Suggs, who redshirted in 1999. Tennessee's backup that year was Joey Mathews, a local product from Sevier County High School. He was the Tennessee player of the year in 1997, redshirted in '98, and many believed he was the favorite to win the job as a sophomore in 2000. That February the Vols signed John Rattay from Arizona, the younger brother of Tim Rattay, who still holds the NCAA record for passing yards per game with 386.2 while at Louisiana Tech. The Vols also took another west coast kid, picking up Casey Clausen from California.
Mathews, Suggs, Rattay, and Clausen would all compete for the starting QB job in a wide open race. Rattay quickly became the odd man out after spring practice, and would eventually transfer. Heading to the fall, it was believed that Clausen had the most potential, but Mathews was the most game ready in August. And it looked like Suggs would become the third wheel.
But Clausen hurt his shoulder in August workouts, and wasn't ready for the opener against Southern Miss. Ten years ago, the Golden Eagles were one of the nation's premier mid-majors, and came into Knoxville ranked #24 and ready for a fight. Mathews got the start, but struggled as the Vols led only 7-3 at halftime. Suggs would see some action, and while neither set the world on fire, his decision making appeared to be much better than Mathews', and Suggs would be on the field for most of the fourth quarter. Tennessee used defense and special teams to squeak out a 19-16 win.
Clausen wouldn't be ready to go two weeks later against the Gators; he would see his first action the following week against Louisiana-Monroe, and would eventually win the starting job during the off week before the Alabama game. But against Florida, Fulmer put the offense in Suggs' hands.
Field Goals & Punts
There are two great truths to the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. We'll get to the main one in a second. But equally important to that one is the fact that if you want to beat the Gators, you can't do it by kicking field goals. In 2006 and 2009, Tennessee had their chances against championship caliber Florida teams, and had to settle for three. And in both cases, it wasn't enough in the end.
With AJ Suggs at quarterback and few expectations, the Vols opened with a Cedrick Wilson fumble and more of those "here we go again" vibes.
But that's when the young Tennessee defense turned in one of the most impressive performances of any John Chavis unit...right until the final drive.
Facing Jesse Palmer and a Florida offense that included Earnest Graham, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, and Taylor Jacobs, the Vol defense opened the game with four straight three and out stops. At the time, we were just getting to know names like John Henderson and Rashad Baker. But given the opponent, the history, and the expectations, this was one of the most amazing displays I've ever seen from a UT defense. They didn't do it with a bunch of turnovers the way the '98 group did against the Gators. They just shut Florida down, repeatedly. The only thing that comes close was the 2007 Arkansas game, where the same Tennessee defense that got ripped apart by Cal, Florida, and Alabama held Darren McFadden and the Hogs to two first downs in the first half.
The defensive stand swung time of possession into the Vols' favor: UT had the ball for 21 minutes in the first half. But again...you can't beat Florida with field goals. And unfortunately, that's all we did.
Five times in this game, the Vols cracked the red zone. Four of those times, we kicked field goals.
The first one was okay, as a drive stalled at the UF 19 and Alex Walls put the Vols up 3-0. In the second quarter, with the Vol defense still yet to give up a first down, the Vols drove to the UF 2...and kicked a field goal. Then we drove to the UF 12...and kicked another field goal. A 9-0 lead was still two possessions, and since we couldn't believe we were winning at all, it was okay.
It became less okay when Florida finally put a drive together and scored to make it 9-7. But again, here came the Vols, again driving to the two yard line...and one more time, settling for a field goal. Tennessee took a 12-7 lead to the locker room...we were still happy to be in front, but at this point our red zone offense was nonexistent.
The team that runs the ball the best will win.*
That's the central truth of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. Since we started playing annually in 1990, 18 of those 20 games have been won by the team that ran for the most yards. One exception is a small one - the Vols outran Florida 99-94 in the 2002 downpour, a number aided by the short fields the Gators repeatedly saw.
But the one giant exception to that rule is this game.
With Suggs playing quarterback, the Vol passing attack was limited. As such, Tennessee kept everything simple, and Suggs finished with a respectable 17 of 29 for 140 yards; if either Matt Simms or Tyler Bray puts up those number against Florida this fall, I won't really complain.
(I think AJ Suggs is one of the more "unfair" stories in recent UT history. This guy was better than we could've ever expected in this game, then went to LSU and broke a Peyton Manning record by completing 37 passes on 59 attempts for 319 yards, 3 TDs, and went 2-2 on two point conversions to get that thing to overtime. He went 13 of 21 for 96 yards at Georgia the next week...another loss. This guy just didn't have the arm (note that in the LSU game, he averaged 8.6 yards per completion and dumped it to David Martin over the middle about a billion times in the second half), but he was very, very accurate. Clausen was just more talented, and going to Iceman was the right move at the right time...but I don't think you can fault Suggs for anything he did here. If the Vols win this game, or win at overtime in LSU, does Clausen stay on the bench longer?)
That meant Tennessee had to put their hopes on the shoulders of Travis Henry. And one of the great tragedies of the end of this game is that Henry's effort was all for naught.
Cheese ran the ball 37 times for 175 yards against the Gators. When center Fred Weary was lost for the season to an ankle injury in the second quarter, the Vols plugged true freshman Scott Wells in behind him and kept right on trucking. When you add in Travis Stephens' 26 yards when Henry needed a breather, plus the dominant effort by the Vol defense, the Vols outrushed Florida 203-39 in this game...and lost.
Florida got a field goal to make it 12-10 early in the third, and then Suggs made his only mistake of the game: Lito Sheppard stepped in front of one at the 19 yard line and easily ran it back for the score, and the Gators had their first lead of the game at 17-12.
At this point, we were kicking ourselves for the earlier field goals, but we also assumed that we were done. Our defense had played as well as it could play, we had no real downfield passing game, and now Florida would pull away. We were young, we'd be back, etc.
But then here came Henry again, refusing to be denied. Tennessee rode him to yet another drive into the red zone, then yet another drive inside the five...and with time winding down in the third quarter, the Vols finally, finally found the end zone.
Henry went in from the one, and when Suggs connected with Wilson for the two point conversion, the Vols were up 20-17 heading to the fourth quarter. We knew that score. We liked that score. And with the defense rested and ready, we were starting to believe.
Our belief increased when the defense turned the Gators away early in the fourth quarter, as the volume at Neyland Stadium continued to increase. Tennessee again drove inside the 30, but again stalled. Alex Walls returned to kick his school record fifth field goal of the day, this one good from 42, putting the Vols up 23-17.
Florida made a run and got within striking distance...but the Vol defense again held. On fourth down at the 14 yard line, Steve Spurrier elected to take three, and the Gators closed to 23-20.
Tennessee looked to Henry to put it away. The Vols drove near midfield with the clock winding down, and again got to one of these "one first down would be huge" moments...but Henry had given us all he had to give. The Vols punted and pinned Florida at the nine yard line.
The Final Drive
2000 was my second year at UT, and this was my first Florida game in the student section. We had great seats, down right next to the Pride of the Southland on like the fifth row. So when Palmer and the Gators came out to start this drive, the crowd is roaring. Because we were confident: at this point in the final minutes, Florida had only 238 yards of offense. Our defense had dominated them, our offense had done what we hoped was enough, and now we needed one stop to end it.
The drive took 10 plays, but two were especially huge. One was a 33 yard completion to Gaffney that put fear into the Neyland crowd and the Tennessee defense; it gave the Gators hope. The final play of the drive gets all the publicity, but remember this was a 23-20 game - all Florida needed to do was get into field goal range to tie it and send it to overtime.
It was the second big play of the drive - a 17 yard completion to Caldwell at the 5 - that really put losing on the table. The whole thing happened so fast...but you could feel it in the crowd, as we went from confidence to nervous energy to fear to suicidal thoughts.
Palmer actually threw a touchdown on the next play, but it was called back for an offensive penalty. The Gators then moved the ball to the three yard line with :20 to play, and then it happened:
If you're reading here, odds are you don't need me to describe it: Palmer looked for Gaffney a couple yards deep in the end zone. Willie Miles was in coverage, with Andre Lott closing from safety. Gaffney had the ball and was in the process of getting his feet down when Miles reached in and knocked it away. It was bang-bang. Florida fans say he caught it. Tennessee fans say he didn't. It's as simple as that.
Even if instant replay existed in 2000, as the call on the field was touchdown, I doubt it could've been conclusively overturned. And so with :14 to play, the Gators stole the victory, 27-23. It was their seventh win in eight tries against the Vols, and broke a 23 game Neyland winning streak for UT...fitting, since that streak started after the Gators beat the Vols in 1996.
Every fanbase goes through at least one loss like this, where you're so sure you have it and it would mean so much, and then it's taken away in the final seconds. When that happens, the majority of us don't lash out with emotion...we go numb. Just as Arkansas has the Clint Stoerner Face and Florida has the Collins Cooper Face, on this day we were introduced to the Jabar Gaffney Face: when this game ended, I don't think I moved or spoke for something like 15 minutes.
Spurrier was quick to note in the postgame that the Vols outplayed his Gators, but also pointed out that perhaps the Gators outplayed the Vols in 98. "God smiled on the Gators," he said.