WARNING: I love to ramble and could talk all day about Florida.
Finally! A familiar, formidable foe with whom we have ample - albeit not always pleasant - history.
Our rivalry with Florida is unique in its recent rise to prominence. The Vols and Gators first played each other in 1916 and then helped form a little conference called the SEC in 1933...maybe you've heard of it. Or, if you're a college athletics history buff, maybe you've heard of the earlier conferences Florida and Tennessee were members of, the Southern Conference and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association! No? Didn't know that UT was 2-0 against Florida when both were members of the SIAA? Well...me either. But now we do!
Despite having a history that stretches back almost 100 years, the two teams have played only 39 times. More than 50% of the games have occurred since the series became an annual affair in 1990. Things haven't really gone that well in those two decades, which is one of the key reasons I believe Florida to be our second biggest rival.I am firmly of the opinion that rivalries are subjective; everybody has their own reasons for picking which teams to dislike. Maybe you went to a game and witnessed an awesome moment (for me, Arkansas). Maybe you have some obnoxious family members who enjoy goading you (Georgia). Maybe you feel a little extra animosity toward a former girlfriend's/boyfriend's favorite team (Alabama). My disdain for Florida can be traced to one simple fact: we lose to them a lot, even when we're good.
I feel like I developed as a fan during the Florida generation. I was blissfully unaware of the historical dry spells against Alabama. By the time I was growing up, we tied them in '93, played close in '94, and then started a run of 7 straight in '95. We owned the rest of the East, almost always beat Arkansas (our 2nd permanent opponent from the West at the time), and generally took on the stray challengers from the West. To use Will's oft-quoted stat that highlights our simultaneous awesomeness and futility in the mid-90's...from late October '94 to November '99, we were 1-4 against Florida and 37-0 against the rest of the SEC. It's a truly mind-boggling statistic and something that we probably won't see again. Looking back on it all, I don't think I'd trade '98 for anything...but what if we could've beaten Florida on a regular basis? It's hard to speculate, but I'd be willing to bet we'd have at least 33% more consensus championships and infinity% more Heismans. Stupid, Florida...
So let's get to the games...which ones are most memorable? I'll limit myself to one positive and one negative game with a few honorable mentions. Let's start negative and get it over with.
Though it had ended with tremendous disappointment, the 2001 season gave us reason to be hopeful going in to 2002. We started the season ranked 5th and had creeped up to 4th when the Gators came into town. Florida had already suffered a loss at the hands of the defending champs, Miami (an experience we'd have later in the season), and had slipped to 10th. At home, there was no reason to lose this game. I really only remember 2 things about this game: the rain and the last 5 minutes of the first half. I'd already had the "pleasure" of volunteering outside all morning helping people park cars at the Ronald McDonald House. It rained. I walked over to meet my dad behind the music building. It rained. We got into the stadium. It rained. It was already a miserable day...then the game started. The teams slogged to a scoreless tie late in the 2nd quarter when
Sexy Rexie Grossman threw a TD Earnest Graham got in on a questionable 4th down call, 7-0 Gators. On the ensuing drive, we fumbled the snap which the Gators recovered. And then they scored again, 14-0. And then we fumbled again...and they recovered again...and eventually scored again...21-0. And then in an effort to run out the last few seconds of the half...we fumbled again...and they recovered again...and they kicked a FG to go up 24-0 at the half. 5 minutes. 24 points. Eleventybillion fumbles. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad game.
Honorable mentions: 2000 (Jabar Gaffney DID NOT CATCH THE BALL!!! IT HAPPENED RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!!! Also, at the age of 14, this was the first loss I witnessed in person...a very special brand of torture) and 2007 (embarrassing)
For my positive memory, I'm going to go a bit outside the box and pick 2004 instead of 1998. This was my first game since leaving for college, and after suffering through one sad contest in Nashville...I was desperately ready to go back to real football. It was an entertaining back and forth affair between two rather young teams. Ainge had played well all night, matching Chris Leak throw for throw (with that absolute beauty right over the outstretched defender to Bret Smith for a TD). In spite of that, a busted coverage put us behind 28-21 in the 4th quarter. No worries, freshman Erik Ainge is on the scene. 80-yard drive in the 4th quarter down 7 against one of your biggest rivals? Convert a 3rd and 9, 4th and 6, and 3rd and 8 to pull within 1? Yeah, sure, no problem. And then...disaster. James Wilhoit pushed the extra point to the right. Florida still led 28-27 and I couldn't believe that was how we were going to lose the game. An extra freakin' point?! AAAHHH!!! But then one defensive stand, one questionable personal foul, and one punt later...there we were with a chance to win the game. And Erik Ainge put us in position, giving Wilhoit an opportunity to go from goat to hero. And man...the eruption in that stadium, the elation I felt, running back to the car, staying up late to watch the highlights, having to take a drive with my dad at 2 in the morning because we were both too wound up to sleep...moments like that are what make Tennessee football incredible.
Honorable mentions: 1998 (Al Wilson + Deon Grant + Cooper Collins = sweetness) and 2001 (Possibly the best game I've ever watched, but it gets eclipsed by games seen in person)
What memories do you all have of playing Florida, both good and bad? Let's exorcise the demons and get ready to sing Rocky Top all night long!