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Tennessee vs Florida: A History of Heartbreak, Controversy, & Redemption

A look at the history of the rivalry.

Ben Garrett

Tennessee and Florida are set to kickoff the 2017 edition of their annual rivalry in Gainesville on Saturday. This season brings yet another clash of two storied programs in what promises to be another memorable one like those of the past.

If you are part of a younger generation of Vol fans, your parents may have told you that this was once the premier rivalry in the SEC. They are right. It used to be THE rivalry. Not so long ago, the Florida and Tennessee game was the one circled on every college football fan’s calendar. It was the game the pundits talked about all off season because it was usually the game that determined your SEC champion. From 1990 to 2001, Florida and Tennessee combined to play in the SEC Championship Game ten times with both teams combining for two national titles in that span. It was this early season match up that not only determined the SEC East champion, but the conference champion.

One could argue that it was the one liners and zingers from Florida head coach Steve Spurrier in 90s or the controversial last second calls that determined the winner that made this rivalry what it is today. It is true that both teams have only played each other on a yearly basis since 1990, making it seem like a relatively young rivalry when compared to the Third Saturday in October or the Iron Bowl. There was once a time when Florida wouldn’t be anywhere near the likes of Alabama, Georgia Tech, or Georgia in terms of Tennessee’s most hated rivals. But the roots of this game go back further than just the last 27 years.

The Early Years

Florida and Tennessee first played each other over a hundred years ago, on October 28, 1916. Tennessee won that match up at a neutral site in Tampa, 24-0. In fact, the Vols won ten straight over the Gators between 1916 and 1953. The 1928 match up at Shields-Watkins Field in Knoxville featured two teams that were aiming for a Rose Bowl birth and a shot at a national championship. Florida was undefeated at 8-0 while Tennessee was 8-0-1 (only blemish was a 0-0 tie with Kentucky). The Vols won at home, 13-12, although neither team would play for a Rose Bowl that season. From 1953 to 1969 the teams only met on the gridiron three times despite both being in the SEC. However, it was that 1969 that may have sparked the beginning of this heated and storied rivalry.

Dickey Departs

Former Florida QB Doug Dickey took over the reigns as head coach of Tennessee in 1964. Dickey had a very successful tenure in Knoxville, winning the SEC twice in 1967 and 1969, and even a national championship in 1967 as well. Following Tennessee’s SEC title winning season in 1969, they were set to play Florida in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville in a rare conference bowl match up. There were rumors abound the week leading up to the game that Florida head coach Ray Graves was going to resign following the game and that Dickey was going to return to Gainesville to take over as head coach. Tennessee, the defending SEC champs, fell to Florida 14-13 and sure enough, Doug Dickey was named the head coach of the Gators the following week. Dickey’s successes in Knoxville did not carry over to Gainesville. He was fired after nine seasons but returned to Tennessee as Athletic Director in 1985. The Dickey fiasco certainly added a flair to a game between two teams that didn’t even play on an annual basis.

Spurrier vs Fulmer

It would not be until the 1992 season when the SEC realigned due to the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, that Florida and Tennessee would become division rivals. Ironically, it was a man from East Tennessee that would really help shape this rivalry as we know it. Steve Spurrier took over at Florida 1990, and although Johnny Majors’ Tennessee team won the first contest of the Spurrier era, 45-3, the Gators would go on to win the next five out of six between 1991 and 1997. His offseason remarks such as “you can’t spell citrus without ‘UT” in regards to Tennessee missing out on the Sugar Bowl and playing in the Citrus Bowl instead or changing the lyrics to Rocky Top from “you’ll always be home sweet home to me” to “You’ll always be second in the SEC” made Tennessee fans’ skin crawl for more than a decade. What made it worse was, he almost always found a way to beat the Vols.

Pandemonium Reigns in ‘98

After five straight losses to Spurrier’s Florida team, Phillip Fulmer and the Vols finally got the monkey off their back in 1998. The Gators entered the game #2 in the country, while Tennessee came in at #6. Peyton Manning who had departed for the NFL the season before was 0-4 vs Florida, but in this match up, it was Tee Martin’s turn to take a stab at them. The week before, Tennessee had pulled off a close one at the Carrier Dome, beating 17th ranked Syracuse 34-33. Many believed Spurrier was set to make it six in a row against Fulmer. But, as we would soon find out about this 1998 Tennessee team, destiny would not have it. The game went into overtime, tied at 17. Neither team had scored since the 3rd quarter, and despite the fact Tennessee’s offense had only mustered just over a total of 230 yards, it was Florida’s turnovers and a stingy Vol defense that kept them in this game. Jeff Hall hit a 41-yard field goal to put Tennessee ahead 20-17. After holding Florida, it was the Gators’ turn to try and even the score and force a second overtime. Collins Cooper was the Florida kicker that would try to extend the game. From 32-yards out, Collins’ field goal was…NO SIR-EE! That wouldn’t the last nail biter that Tennessee team would play in, but they did enough en route to an SEC and national championship to complement breaking the streak over Florida.

The Catch that wasn’t.

The year 2000 brought one of the most memorable and controversial games in the history of the series. Trailing 23-20, Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer hit Jabar Gaffney for a touchdown to go ahead 27-23 with only 17 seconds left in the game. Well, Florida fans might tell you Gaffney “caught” what would be the winning touchdown pass. Tennessee’s Willie Miles swatted the ball out of Gaffney’s arms almost immediately after it had hit his hands. But, in an era where plays were not yet reviewed, Florida escaped Neyland Stadium with the win and eventually won the SEC championship over Auburn later that season.

Vols drain the Swamp

Tennessee went into the 2001 game looking for revenge as both teams were nationally ranked in the top 5 and both had 9-1 records. This one was a little bigger than the match ups of years past. The winner went to Atlanta to play LSU and if they could win in the Georgia Dome, they were going to play Miami for a national championship. It’s true that throughout the 90’s, you could usually bet the winner went to the SEC Championship Game (only once did the loser go on to play in the conference title game), but this one was different. Due to the tragic events of 9/11 earlier that year, this would be the final game on the SEC slate, and it would feature the two best teams in the conference. Despite another top 10 showdown between these two teams, not many outside of the Tennessee faithful were giving the Vols a chance to march into the Swamp and beat one of the best teams in the nation. What the experts and outsiders thought didn’t matter, prompting Fulmer to give his team a memorable pep talk in the visiting locker room of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. “I don’t know how many people in this country believe,” Fulmer told his players. “That really doesn’t matter, either. It only matters what the men in the room believe.” Tennessee running back Travis Stephens dominated, setting the tone early with a big run to put the Vols out in front on the road. He continued that trend throughout the game, totaling up 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Florida’s offense however continued to do what they had all season. Behind QB Rex Grossman, who passed for 362 yards on the day, Florida was able to answer almost every Tennessee score. Trailing 23-21 early in the fourth quarter, Stephens powered his way for a 34 yard touchdown to put the Vols up 28-23. Finally, after a back and forth final period, it came down to a two point conversion to possibly put the game in OT. Tennessee was leading 34-26 when Rex Grossman hit Carlos Perez for a touchdown with only 1:10 left in the game. A two point conversion was the only choice Florida had to have a chance. Grossman took the snap, and like 2000, Gaffney was the target. Unlike 2000, Gaffney couldn’t get to it. The ball sailed into the southeast corner of the endzone. Tennessee, SEC East Champs.

Wilhoit’s Redemption

Tennessee entered the 2004 game ranked 13th in the nation. Both teams were 2-2 versus each other in the last four meetings, and the 2004 match up was no different than the previous games. Behind freshman QB Erik Ainge, the Vols were able to keep the game close, as it was tied at 21 apiece in the fourth quarter. However, a late touchdown pass by Chris Leak put the Gators ahead 28-21. On the ensuing drive, Ainge hit Jayson Swain for a touchdown with 3:25 left in the game. James Wilhoit missed what would have been the game tying extra point, setting up an opportunity for Florida to run the clock out and leave Knoxville with a big win. Leading 28-27, the Gators were facing 3rd and a yard to go late with 55 seconds left to play. Florida wide receiver Dallas Baker was caught slapping the face mask of Jonathan Wade. Although Baker was acting in retaliation for Wade slapping him first, the official flagged Baker for unsportsmanlike conduct, thus ending any chance Florida had of going for it on 3rd down and running out the clock. Still, Baker probably shouldn’t have retaliated. Tennessee got the ball back with only 43 ticks on the clock. Ainge was able to get the Vols into field goal range with 13 seconds to go. Wilhoit was given another shot at redemption after missing the game tying extra point. From 50 yards out, Wilhoit hit the ball between the uprights, giving Tennessee the 30-28 victory. You may remember Verne Lundquist’s legendary “it’s got the distance…he nailed it!” call that will go down in SEC football history.

Following the 2004 game, the rivalry lost a lot of its luster. Florida went on a historic run that spanned a decade plus, beating Tennessee eleven times between 2005 and 2015. Tennessee finally brought back some of that intensity this game once had when they overcame a 21 point deficit to break the streak in Neyland last season, in the form of 38-28 win, thus proving that ducks can in fact pull a truck.

It’s hard to say what is in store for this year’s game, but it looks like this once great rivalry may be returning to its prime. Who knows, the years ahead may signal a return of the days when Florida and Tennessee battled it out for a shot at Atlanta every year. And that is good for the SEC and college football.