It may be hard to believe now, but college football’s premiere rivalry through the the 1990’s and early 2000’s was Florida versus Tennessee.
Everyone had their calendar’s circled for the third week of September, because for many, that game marked the start of the college football season. Between 1990 and 2007, the Gators and Vols met as ranked opponents for 18 straight seasons. Both combined for four national championship game appearances, nine SEC titles, and four national championship victories.
Such has not been the case for over a decade now, but as both programs claw back towards relevancy once again, let’s take a look at five memorable match ups between Florida and Tennessee to remind us of a time when this one was the game of the year.
1969 Gator Bowl: Florida 14, Tennessee 13
Long before the SEC would split into two divisions, it wasn’t completely uncommon for inner conference bowl games. Following Tennessee’s claim to the 1969 SEC title, the Vols were paired up with the Gators in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.
An argument could be made that this is where the true origins of this storied rivalry began. Then-Florida head coach Ray Graves was preparing to step down after 10 seasons at the helm following the game-or so the rumor went. The other rumor flying around before kickoff was that his replacement would be Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey-a Gainesville native and former Florida quarterback.
The Gators would send Graves out a winner with a 14-13 win over the conference champion Vols, and sure enough, just days later, Dickey took the Florida job. After a 10-year stint trying to do at his alma mater what he did at Tennessee (two SEC titles and a national championship in 1967), Dickey returned to Knoxville as Athletic Director until 2002.
2000 Knoxville: Florida 27, Tennessee 23
The Vols were just 2-7 against Florida and Steve Spurrier heading into this top-10 showdown at Neyland Stadium.
Florida trailed for most of the game until a Casey Clausen pass intercepted by Lito Shepherd were returned for go-ahead touchdown to put the Gators up, 17-12. Tennessee responded with touchdown drive, a 2-point conversion and a field goal to go ahead 23-20 late in the game.
With just over two minutes left in the game, Florida started a drive inside their own 10-yard line. Jesse Palmer and the Gator offense were able to march the ball all the way to Tennessee’s 5-yard line. A touchdown pass from Palmer to Reche Caldwell seemingly put Florida ahead, but an ineligible receiver call would wipe out the score.
Two plays later, Palmer took another shot at the endzone to a well covered Jabar Gaffney. The ball spent less than half a second in Gaffney’s hands before it was knocked out, but the closest official signaled ‘touchdown’ with :16 seconds left.
2004 Knoxville: Tennessee 30, Florida 28
With the game tied 21-21 with under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Florida’s Chris Leak connected with Chad Jackson for an 81-yard touchdown to put the Gators ahead, 28-21.
Tennessee responded again with a 12-play, 80-yard drive capped off by an Erik Ainge touchdown pass to Jayson Swain. However, on the ensuing extra point attempt, James Wilhoit hooked it to the right, allowing Florida to maintain a one point lead with just over three minutes left.
With the ball, the Gators were looking to run the clock, but Tennessee’s defense managed to hold them to a 4th-and-1 with under a minute left in regulation. Away from the play however, Florida wide receiver Dallas Baker and Tennessee’s Jonathan Wade exchanged slaps on each other’s facemasks. Baker was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that turned it into a 4th-and-15.
With decent field position, Ainge lead the Vols down to the Florida 34-yard line to set up a 50-yard field goal for Wilhoit. With redemption in mind, Wilhoit’s kick was right down the middle as time expired, and Tennessee escaped with the win. The Vols would go on to play in the SEC Championship Game versus Auburn later that season.
2001 Gainesville: Tennessee 34, Florida 32
Due to the events of September 11 the week of the Florida-Tennessee game, the top-5 battle was rescheduled for early December with a shot at the SEC title-and possibly, a national title on the line.
Florida entered the game No. 2 in the country behind Miami, their only blemish being a road loss at Auburn in early October. Tennessee too had been once beaten by a late touchdown pass versus Georgia and was No. 5 in the country.
Lead by one of Steve Spurrier’s most potent offensive attacks with then-Heisman hopeful Rex Grossman, it was easy to see why the Gators were an overwhelming favorite-especially with the game being in The Swamp. But behind the running abilities of Travis Stephens, who rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns, the Vols shocked the nation with a 34-32 win in Gainesville.
The win landed Tennessee in Atlanta, but they found themselves on the losing end of an upset at the hands of LSU a week later.
1998 Knoxville: Tennessee 20, Florida 17
Did you read that score in John Ward’s voice? Tennessee hadn’t beaten Florida in their five previous meetings and while the Vols were ranked No. 8 nationally and coming off of a road win against a top-15 Syracuse team, there wasn’t much speculation outside of Knoxville that Tennessee would end the streak.
While Tennessee only managed a little over 230 yards of total offense, defense proved to be the difference as they forced four Florida turnovers to stay in the game. Both teams exchanged touchdowns in the fourth quarter to go into overtime tied 17-17.
The Vols scored first on a field goal from Jeff Hall to take a 20-17 lead. Florida kicker Collins Cooper trotted out onto the field to try and send the game to a second overtime, but missed wide left to snap Tennessee’s five-game losing streak.