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Tennessee vs Florida: Learning to Win

Florida has won ten straight over Tennessee, with last year's late heartbreak piling on almost a decade of quick defeats. As the Gators transition to Jim McElwain, will things be different for Tennessee this year?

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The last time Tennessee beat Florida Phillip Fulmer was on the sideline.  So was Randy Sanders.  There's a chance someone reading this doesn't know who Randy Sanders is.

There was no such thing as an iPhone, Twitter, or Rocky Top Talk.  Urban Meyer was in Utah and his spread option would never work in the SEC, Will Muschamp was an assistant under Nick Saban in Baton Rouge, and Jim McElwain was coaching wide receivers and special teams at Michigan State.

In 2004 Tennessee had just made beating Florida as close to normal as it's ever been in Knoxville.  The Vols had notched wins over the Gators in three of the last four meetings, entering 2005 ranked in the top five and poised to win far more than the SEC East crown.

And in this rivalry, it hasn't been close since.

Florida hasn't just won ten straight against Tennessee.  It has spent most of the decade leaving no doubt about the outcome.

It's a familiar feeling if you've been doing this for a while.  Florida's five year run over the Vols from 1993-97 was unquestionably more painful because Tennessee was beating everyone else.  Here's my favorite stat once more:  between an October 1994 loss to Alabama and a November 1999 loss to Arkansas, Tennessee went 1-4 against Florida and 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.

But oh, those losses.  In 1993 Florida jumped to a 21-0 lead before winning 41-34.  In 1994 UT was shutout by the Gators (the last time that's happened to the Vols) 31-0.  In 1996 Florida scored the game's first 35 points in a Neyland Stadium shocker.  And in 1997 the Gators jumped to a 14-0 lead off a Peyton Manning pick six en route to a 33-20 victory.  Only once in the five year losing streak did Tennessee even have the lead, and even that was somehow more painful:  the Vols jumped Florida 30-14 late in the second quarter in Gainesville in 1995 before Florida exploded in the second half to win 62-37.

And so after a seven year string of highly competitive games from 1998-2004, Florida has gone right back to giving Tennessee the business from the opening kickoff.

(EDIT:  The numbers below have been updated due to a research error)

In ten Florida victories and 600 minutes of football from 2005-14, Tennessee has had the lead for just 100:05.  And most of that has come in the only two games of this ten year stretch to be decided by a single possession:

  • Tennessee led for 31:27 in 2006, taking the lead on a Lucas Taylor to LaMarcus Coker trick play seven minutes into the second quarter and holding it until the Gators scored the game's final points with 6:30 to go in a 21-20 Florida victory.
  • The Vols led 3-0 for 4:28 in 2010 before Florida got on the board early in the second quarter.  Tennessee did tie the game midway through the third quarter before falling 31-17.
  • Tennessee led for 16:07 in 2012, going in front 14-7 on a Tyler Bray to Mychal Rivera score midway through the second quarter and staying there until the defense went all Sunseri in the game's final 18 minutes of an eventual 37-20 Florida win.
  • The Vols led for an even 11 minutes in 2013 when Devaun Swafford pick-sixed Jeff Driskel in the first quarter for the game's first points midway through the first quarter.  Florida would take advantage of Nathan Peterman to get the lead back and eventually win 31-17.
  • Most (in)famously, Tennessee led for 37:03 last year.  Aaron Medley put the Vols on the board early in the second quarter, and an eventual 9-0 lead held until Austin Hardin booted in a 49-yard field goal with 6:20 to play for the eventual 10-9 final.
In ten years the Vols have had the lead over Florida for just 16.7% of the total clock, and again, most of that in 2006 and 2014.  While it's been encouraging to see the Vols actually get a lead each of the last three years, the last two have had more to do with Florida's offensive ineptitude than Tennessee's effectiveness; in both cases the Gators were just briefly worse with the football than the Vols.

Our own Chris Pendley theorizes Tennessee is going to have to break this streak in Gainesville, away from the added pressure of 102,455 who all felt like dying for most of those 60 minutes in Neyland last year.  UT's own history also shows us many streaks can only be broken violently, as was the case with the Vols over Alabama in 1995 (41-14) and the Tide returning the favor in 2002 (34-14).  If you're going to kill ghosts, you have to be thorough.

Plain and simple, the Vols have to learn how to win.  That's true in a lot of ways for this team, but especially against Florida.  There's good news for Tennessee in this series on paper with a coaching change in Gainesville, but that didn't stop Urban Meyer or Will Muschamp (or Ron Zook on his first try) in this rivalry.

Many of Tennessee's players are facing a hype built more on recruiting stars and relative progress than actual wins at this point.  This is especially true for Josh Dobbs, who is yet to play a down against Florida (or Georgia).  Perhaps these still young Vols are also still immune to the psychological weight of streaks because, other than South Carolina, every significant opponent the Vols will face has one on them.  Losing to Florida is less special when you've been losing to everybody.  But that did not appear to be the case last fall.

Until last year even holding a lead on Florida was uncharted territory for most of the last ten years.  So now, with the Gators starting a rebuild and the Vols looking to finish one, will this be the year?  For Team 119 to be successful, their young players have to learn how to win big games.  And there's no more important time to learn than September 26 in Gainesville.  If the Vols stumble again, their SEC East dreams will be one in the hole immediately and that familiar suffocating feeling will return.  But if Tennessee can clear this mental hurdle, all the others will seem much smaller.  Florida will not be Tennessee's most difficult challenge on paper, but the Gators have been living in Tennessee's head for ten years.  It's up to Butch Jones and Team 119 to shake off the cobwebs and start making new memories.