Know Your Foe: The Florida-Tennessee Rivalry

The past two weeks, we have looked at Florida's rivalries with Georgia and Florida State.

 

There was no rivalry between Florida and Tennessee before the SEC split into divisions in 1992, but between 1992 and 2001 it was arguable the most meaningful game of the SEC season, as either Florida or Tennessee would represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship Game every year. From 1916 to 1991, the two teams met only 21 times. While the Gators and Vols might not have a long history, but that doesn't mean that it's not as bitter as any other Gator rivalry.

Founded in1794, the University of Tennessee has the distinction of being the only university to hold the presidential papers of three U. S. Presidents (Jackson, Polk, and Andrew Johnson). With an enrollment of about half of UF's, Tennessee (technically the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) is the flagship university of the University of Tennessee system. The Knoxville campus is located on 550 hilly acres between Cumberland Avenue and the Tennessee River. Ranked number 104 by the most recent US News & World Report rankings, Tennessee has many well respected academic programs including highly ranked architecture and MBA programs. The university is also affiliated with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb.

 

As a land-grant university, Tennessee also includes numerous agricultural facilities, including their Anthropological_Research_Facility, also known as the "Body Farm." For those who don't know, the Body Farm is a property owned by the university where cadavers are placed in various positions for varying amounts of time to help better understand the decomposition process.

 

Neyland Stadium is possibly the most scenic stadium in the SEC. Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, the 102,000 seat stadium's location led to one of the coolest traditions in college football, the Volunteer Navy, where Big Orange fans tailgate by boat before the games.

 

While Florida and Tennessee did not play on a regular basis until the 1990s, the first meaningful game played between the two schools was in 1928, when an unbeaten Gators squad lost in Knoxville 13-12, and lost a potential Rose Bowl bid. In 2001, the Vols would again cost the Gators a Rose Bowl bid with a two point win in Gainesville in a game postponed due to the terror attacks of 9/11. After that win and another in 2003, Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen conducted the band in playing "Rocky Top," which angered a Florida drum major so much that she began throwing a pass to another band member as part of the Pride of the Sunshine's pregame activities.

 

Despite a few heartbreaks, Gators have gotten the better of the Vols since divisional play started, going 14-5 since 1992, including Peyton Manning's 0-4 mark. The Tennessee frustrations with Florida go back further than the Fulmer era. In 1969, the SEC Champion Vols were invited to face of against the Gators and their "Super Sophs" in the Gator Bowl. Not only did Tennessee lose the game, but when Ray Graves retired from coaching after the game, Vol coach Doug Dickey was hired as his replacement. In 1991, after the Vols had ruined Steve Spurrier's first trip to Knoxville as the Florida Coach, controversy ensued when fired UT assistant Jack Sells faxed Florida defensive coordinator (and former Tennessee assistant) Ron Zook a copy of the Vols offensive game plan, enabling Zook's defense to hold Tennessee to just 18 points and 392 passing yards.

 

Before the BCS expanded to include the BCS Championship Game, the second best bowl for an SEC squad was the Citrus Bowl (now the CapitalOne Bowl), and after four consecutive Gator wins (and four SEC Championships) accompanied by three Tennessee trips to Orlando, Steve Spurrier made his famous "You can't spell Citrus without UT" remark and kidded that Peyton Manning had returned to be a "three-time Citrus Bowl MVP." Of course, no recap of Tennessee gripes would be complete without Jabar Gaffney's controversial catch with 14 seconds left to give the Gators a 27-23 win in Knoxville in 2000.

 

As I mentioned before, this rivalry simply did not exist before 1992, but the 19 meetings since the SEC split into divisions make up for the 21 meetings in the previous prior 76 years – only 18 of which were in conference play (three times in the Southern Conference, and 15 in the SEC, excluding the 1969 Gator Bowl). Legendary Florida coach and athletic director Ray Graves played for Robert Neyland and was a captain at Tennessee. Bob Woodruff who coached the Gators in the 1950s played football at Tennessee, and would go on to be the UT athletic director, and hired former Gator quarterback, Doug Dickey as the Vols head coach. Dickey would coach the Gators from 1970 to 1978, and then became the Tennessee athletic director in 1985.

 

Since the inception of the SEC Championship Game, the SEC East has been represented by either Florida or Tennessee in 15 times out of the 19 games, and only three times has the loser of the Florida-Tennessee game gone on to play for an SEC title. While the rivalry seems to have cooled lately (Lane Kiffen's "moral victory" aside), Florida and Tennessee's conference opening tilt continues to set the tone for the SEC East race, and the recent memory of a decade when the two teams would play an early elimination game for conference and national championship hopes, keep this among Florida's top rivalries.

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