A Season In Championship Mode: The Tennessee Game

We continue our look back at the 1996 championship season. Today is the game that announced Florida was ready to challenge again for a title; Gators at Volunteers.

Peyton Manning is the quarterback for No. 2 Tennessee (2-0), but he is also their researcher and scientist, breaking down not just game film of the No. 4 Gators (2-0) but also of Kansas State. That is were Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops was last season, using an aggressive scheme to allow only 13.2 points per game and propel the Wildcats to a 10-2 record.

The new scheme has inspired confidence in the Gators, especially against the Vols quarterback.

''They look vulnerable, very vulnerable,'' Tim Beauchamp, a defensive end, told reporters earlier this week. ''As much as we blitz, it should get pretty ugly.''

On the subject of Manning, who is operating behind a rebuilt offensive line, Beauchamp was just as blunt. He maintained that Manning holds the ball near his waist, a habit that the Gators could exploit. ''He gets rattled,'' Beauchamp said. ''He has real jumpy feet, and he holds the ball out here. We've got a chance to strip that ball.''

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It was not the 62-37 destruction the Gators laid on Tennessee in Gainesville a year earlier, but Florida’s 35-29 victory Saturday in Knoxville may have been more destructive to the fragile ego of Tennessee football. This was supposed to be the year the Vols (2-1) broke the strangle hold Florida (3-0) has on the SEC East. After racing out to a 35-0 lead, the Gators were able to hold on, and now hold the top rank in the nation.

Tennessee’s much hyped quarterback, Peyton Manning, filled the stat sheet with 492 yards and four TDs, but he also threw four interceptions. Manning and the Vols were outclassed by a Gator offense that gained 141 on the ground and Danny Wuerffel’s four TD passes, on only 11-22 passing. The win was especially pleasing for the senior from Ft. Walton Beach. From Sports Illustrated;

In the cool darkness of last Saturday evening, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel jogged from the floor of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, his head humbly bowed and his face expressionless. Only when he neared the tunnel at the south end of the field did Wuerffel lift his chin, gently shake his right fist once, twice, three times and let a soft smile crease his face as if he were savoring some small, private success. "He remembers that game in Arizona last January," said Wuerffel's father, Jon, who stood nearby in a thicket of Gators fans. Behind Wuerffel, teammate Johnny Rutledge, a sophomore linebacker, rumbled through the tunnel like a storm, raising his orange helmet overhead and then lowering it as he yelled, almost in disbelief, "They really thought they would win!"

Wuerffel has sometimes been belittled as merely the latest beneficiary of Spurrier's pass-happy offense, but in fact he has proved to be talented, tough and reliable. He has endured his coach's demands with extreme patience, and after shredding Tennessee on Saturday he seemed ready to put questions about the Fiesta Bowl loss behind him forever. "This is a new game and a new season," Wuerffel said. "That [Nebraska] game was a long time ago."

The Gators face Kentucky next week.

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