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20 Losses in 20 Years #9 - Where Only Gators Get Out Alive

How to build a rivalry from scratch:

Steve Spurrier became the head coach at the University of Florida in 1990.  He won a Heisman Trophy with the Gators in 1966, but only after he played quarterback for Science Hill in Johnson City, Tennessee.  In his first trip to Neyland Stadium as Florida's head coach, the Vols turned a 7-3 halftime game into a 45-3 spanking (a performance many say gave Spurrier the necessary motivation to run it up on the Vols in years to come).  The next year, Florida beat Tennessee 35-18 in Gainesville.  The Vols won the SEC in 1990.  The Gators won in 1991.

And then in 1992, instead of Florida and Tennessee disappearing from each other's schedule for several years, the new divisional alignment made them annual rivals.  Under interim coach Phillip Fulmer, the Vols stunned the Gators in a Knoxville downpour in 1992, 31-14.  Florida won a shootout in Gainesville the following year, 41-34.  The Vols rebuilt in 1994, but before Peyton Manning assumed command, Todd Helton was on the receiving end of a 31-0 beating from the #1 Gators, the last time the Vols have been shutout.

All of that set the stage for 1995:  Florida was the two-time defending SEC Champion, but the Vols were fully rebuilt and armed to the teeth:  sophomore QB Peyton Manning led an offense with Jay Graham, Joey Kent, and Marcus Nash.  And when Fulmer needed a new defensive coordinator for the '95 season, he promoted from within, hiring John Chavis.

Chief's first real test was a bumpy ride, giving up 155 yards in two and a half quarters to Georgia's Robert Edwards, before Edwards broke his foot and the Vols escaped thanks to Jeff Hall.  His second test came on a Saturday afternoon in Gainesville, #4 Florida and #8 Tennessee.  Tennessee fans viewed this budding rivalry as an even fight...and after this day, it would be the last time we thought that way for four years.  

9. 1995:  #4 Florida 62 - #8 Tennessee 37 (Gainesville)

One thing about the David Cutcliffe/Peyton Manning playcalling combo:  they didn't screw around.

Tennessee went deep on the first play of the game, and scored on the second.  It was a shot across the bow, loud and clear.  And it was a sign of things to come in the first half.

The '95 Gators featured plenty of names we would grow to hate:  Danny Wuerffel, Fred Taylor, and the unholy trinity of Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, and Ike Hilliard.  The most annoying one, though, was Chris Doering, otherwise known as "that white guy" - the one you'd watch and wonder how in the world he was beating your defense, while using phrases like "I could stop that guy!".  Apparently not, since that white guy is the SEC's all-time leader in touchdown catches with 31.

But...for the first half of the 1995 game, we didn't hate any of these guys just yet.  They were merely spectators to one of the best twenty-nine minute performances a UT team has ever put on.

We learned in our previous trip to The Swamp to expect the shootout, and Tennessee was living up to its end of the bargain.  The Vol offense scored three touchdowns in the first half, behind an uncanny performance from Manning:  13 of 16 for 216 yards and 2 TDs in the first two quarters. 

And it wasn't just Manning - Chief's defense had the green light on Wuerffel, and the Vols connected on more shots at Florida's quarterback than anyone not wearing garnet and gold ever got.  A safety put the Vols up 23-7 in the second quarter.  Florida answered to make it 23-14, and then got the ball back and looked to close the gap again before halftime.

But the Vols got one more killshot on Wuerffel, forcing a fumble that was picked up by Raymond Austin and taken to the house.  With just minutes remaining in the second quarter, Tennessee led the Gators 30-14.

Eleven yards away with nine seconds left in the half, Wuerffel hit Hilliard for a crucial score.  That made it 30-21 Vols going to the locker room...but again, we were good; you have to remember that all the "uh oh" vibes we have when we play Florida didn't exist yet.

But they were about to be created.

Out of the locker room, Tennessee again marched right downfield and got to the Florida 11...but Manning was sacked, sending on Jeff Hall...who missed a field goal.  It was a missed opportunity, nothing more.

Florida scored with less than eight minutes to play in the third to cut the lead to 30-28.  Our dreams of a blowout were gone, and we settled back in for the shootout idea.

And then Jay Graham changed the nature of this rivalry.

To be fair, it wasn't all Graham's fault.  He certainly wasn't responsible for covering anybody wearing a blue jersey, or keeping them out of the end zone.  But with the Vols up two, Graham's first fumble was a small hole in the dam.  Florida scored and took their first lead of the day.

And then Graham's second fumble brought the whole thing down.

Consecutive turnovers became consecutive touchdowns, and all of a sudden the Vols went from winning to down two possessions.  It started raining.  The Vol offense started to panic.  And the Gator offense never stopped.

The rest is an awful blur, but I know it involved six consecutive touchdowns before the Vols got a garbage one at the end.  If you were too young for this one but remember the 2007 Tennessee-Florida game, it was much the same on the field in the third and fourth quarter...only made worse by the two sixteen point leads the Vols held in the first half.

Wuerffel's final stat line:  29 of 39 for 381 yards and six touchdowns.  In Tim Layden's article from Sports Illustrated, which was a huge help in remembering this game, there are several "great" quotes from Spurrier about this game (which should serve as an excellent reminder that this university has no greater nemesis) and Florida's sheer dominance.  The Vols led 30-14 with nine seconds left in the second quarter, and lost 62-37. 

It's interesting too, what happened after this game.  Florida didn't lose in the regular season, won their third straight SEC title, and then got buzzsawed even worse by Nebraska in the National Championship game, 62-24. 

Tennessee didn't lose again either.  And the two biggest goats from this game redeemed themselves in huge ways later that season:  Jay Graham not only changed the nature of this rivalry, but The Third Saturday in October as well.  A lot of the hurt from this game was undone by the 41-14 win over Bama a month later, in which Graham had the nail in the coffin run.  The following year, Graham again fumbled against Florida, and again broke Bama's back with a late touchdown run.

As for John Chavis, who was nearly crucified for the performances of his defense against Georgia and Florida?  By the end of the year, the '95 Vols became one of Chief's best ever D's, and shut down Eddie George and Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl, quite possibly the most talented team the Vols have ever faced.  And though Chief's defense would also take a beating from the Gators in '96, they almost won the game by themselves in 1998.

Still, the huge swing of this game, and the fact that it was the only game the Vols lost in 1995 (not that we wouldn't have been equally buzzsawed by '95 Nebraska, who might be the best football team of my lifetime), make this one very heartbreaking.  Florida took control of this rivalry on this date, and though the Vols pulled even from 1998-2004, they've never taken control back.