Whatever you want to say about Tennessee, let's all agree on this: We as Gator fans do not care for them.
I've already been through this, but I don't consider Tennessee an official "rival," because in order for it to be a rivalry, the other team has to win, and Tennessee has not done so since 2004 (and even that game was won due in large part to two major blunders by the referees). However: I want Florida to beat Tennessee very, very badly.
This series has been an interesting one. Some of the games between these teams have been very memorable, some more so than others for Florida fans than Tennessee fans, and vice versa. So, here we go, reliving some of the best moments (from both sides) in this series, and counting down:
No. 4 Florida 23, No. 2 Tennessee 21 (September 18, 1999)
This was not one of Steve Spurrier's Gators' best offensive performances. Then why mention it, since offense was what Spurrier lived and died by? Because on this night, Alex Brown turned in one of the best defensive performances by any player I have ever seen. He basically set up a tent in Tennessee's backfield, sacking Tee Martin five times and also picking off a pass.
Meanwhile, Florida's offense did just enough to win. For the most part, they avoided turnovers and penalties and built a 23-7 lead in the third quarter. They did let Tennessee back into the game, giving up two touchdowns to make the score 23-21, but when it mattered most, the defense clamped down and stopped the Vols' Jamal Lewis on fourth down at the Florida 42 with two minutes to go.
The Gators had just come off of a devastating loss to Tennessee the year before. (Collins Cooper had missed a field goal in overtime, which is basically a death sentence within the rules of college football overtime.) That was also the first time Philip Fulmer had beaten Florida since his inaugural season in 1992. Before Tennessee could get any ideas of putting together some kind of winning streak in the series, however, Brown simultaneously ended that possibility and put on a show that would launch his career. He still calls this game the best he ever played, and it had a lot to do with the Chicago Bears deciding to employ him for eight years.
Meanwhile, the loss had a sickening effect on Tennessee that will become a theme as you read on down the list: It cost the Vols a chance to play for a championship. A later upset loss to Arkansas probably would have ended the Vols' national title hopes anyway, but they would have at least set up a rematch with Alabama (who they had already beaten 21-7 in Tuscaloosa earlier that year) in the SEC Championship had they beaten Florida.
No. 5 Tennessee 34, No. 2 Florida 32 (December 1, 2001)
This one stings. The two teams entered the game with identical 6-1 SEC records, meaning the winner would play for the SEC Championship. On this day, the Vols walked into the Swamp and imposed their will from the opening kick, building a 14-0 lead and making the Gators play from behind. The offense, due to the aforementioned absence of Earnest Graham, struggled mightily. Rex Grossman didn't have a bad day (362 yards and 2 TDs) but with no help from the running game, Florida's offense was one-dimensional (just 36 rushing yards on the day) and that would bite them in the end.
On the other hand, Travis Stephens had no problem tearing through a suddenly anemic Gator defense, totaling 226 yards on the ground. It came down to this: Florida was down 34-26 and driving with a couple of minutes left. Grossman threw a touchdown pass to Carlos Perez to make it 34-32, but on the ensuing two point conversion attempt, his desperation pass fell incomplete (remember, Florida had no running game to make Tennessee guess). Tennessee, the 17.5 point underdog despite having the same record as Florida, pulled the 34-32 upset.
I've been alive and conscious for some of the best Gator teams in history: the 2006, 2008 and 2009 teams, for example, and I've watched several saved, taped games from the 1995 and 1996 seasons, so I think I have a pretty good sample size on them. So I'll say this: the 2001 team might have been the best team in Gators history. Note, the word might. But still, they belong in any conversation. Consider this resume (note: rankings beside the team's name indicates final season ranking):
- At No. 7 LSU: W, 44-15
- At No. 13 South Carolina: W, 54-17
- No. 15 Florida State: W, 37-13
- No. 22 Georgia: W, 24-10
- No. 10 Maryland: W, 56-23
- No. 21 Marshall: W, 49-14
Their first loss, to a 7-5 Auburn team on the road, would have been completely irrelevant had it been the Gators' only blemish. Florida was ranked No. 2 coming into this game, and had they beaten Tennessee, they would have set up a rematch with the same LSU team that they had dismantled 44-15 (in Death Valley, I may add) for the SEC Championship. Had they won that, the Gators would have set up a rematch of the previous year's Sugar Bowl with Miami in the Rose Bowl, and even without Earnest Graham, would have been a much better match for Miami than Nebraska. But of course, Tennessee (and Florida State) robbed the Gators of all this in one of the most exciting games of the series' history.
No. 15 Florida 14, No. 11 Tennessee 13 (December 27, 1969)
What happened on the field in this game was not what anyone expected. Two high powered offenses were reduced to a punting contest. The strange thing about the matchup is that despite Florida and Tennessee being in the same conference, the Gator Bowl paired them together. Keep in mind that the Gator Bowl was a far more prestigious game back in the 1960's than it is today, and since both teams were ranked in the top 15 and hadn't played each other that year, it turned out to be OK.
Plus, you know, Florida won, thanks in part to John Reaves hitting Carlos Alvarez for a TD. But the real story was Mike Kelley, who recorded a pick, a fumble recovery, 17 tackles, including a sack, and a blocked punt that he also recovered for a touchdown. Trailing 14-13 with a minute to go, Tennessee drove down to Florida's one yard line with about a minute to go. Tennessee coach Doug Dickey (yes, you read that right) elected to go for the touchdown on 4th down instead of the field goal. The Vols didn't get it. The call was foreshadowing of Dickey's infamous "Fourth and Dumb" decision against Georgia several years later, but unfortunately for Gator fans, that ill fated choice came when he was wearing the colors of the team he wound up losing to in that game. Read on. It gets weird here.
Before the game, rumors leaked out that Dickey (Florida's QB in the 50's) would rejoin his alma mater after the game and replace Ray Graves (captain of Robert Neyland's 1941 Tennessee squad) as Florida's head coach. Of course, both sides denied it (of course, like Tennessee's coach is really going to admit that he's ditching the team he's currently coaching in favor of the team he's about to play right before he plays them) but five short days after Dickey's Volunteers fell three feet short against the Gators, sure enough, he was introduced as Florida's new head coach.
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending for Gator fans. I promised I'd be unbiased in this piece, and I will stick to it. I'll man up and admit what happened the following year: Tennessee got even, crushing their former boss's new team by a score of 38-7. John Reaves channeled his inner Peyton Manning (against Florida, of course), and while he didn't throw five interceptions in one game like Manning, he did throw two, both of which were taken back for touchdowns. The Vols would also win the next game against the Gators, 20-13, in the return trip to the Swamp.
No. 16 Florida 33, Tennessee 23 (September 17, 2011)
This game was hardly exciting, but it had another reason to be memorable. Will Muschamp can certainly attest to that. This was the day that everybody saw the raw potential of Muschamp's team that would take a year to transform into a national powerhouse.
Florida jumped out to a 30-7 lead on the fantastic play of Chris Rainey, who blocked a punt and torched the Tennessee defense on an 83 yard touchdown off a John Brantley screen pass. Speaking of Brantley, he had a pretty good performance himself, not even counting that touchdown pass: he managed the game well, and didn't make mistakes. Tennessee made the score look close with a couple of late touchdown drives by Tyler Bray, but when Matt Elam picked off an overthrown ball by Bray with two minutes to go, the game was over, and Florida had its first SEC win under Will Muschamp.
This was Muschamp's first SEC victory, which means more than words can possibly explain. I certainly cannot explain it, because I am not Will Muschamp. I did not grow up in the Gators' backyard. I did not go to dozens of Florida games as a kid. I am not the Gators' head coach. But it was special, even though Muschamp made it clear after the win that there was still plenty of work to do.
That still holds true after the recent loss to Miami, but the point is, whatever success or failure Muschamp has, it all started here, in this game. Should his Gators become a perennial powerhouse, I would slide this game up higher on this list.
No. 6: No. 4 Florida 62, No. 8 Tennessee 37 (September 16, 1995)
It was all going so well for Tennessee on an overcast day in the Swamp. 15 seconds into the game, Peyton Manning had connected with Marcus Nash for a touchdown and Tennessee had a 7-0 lead before most fans had settled into their seats. Danny Wuerffel had turned it over once already on a fumble, and the Volunteers cashed that mistake in for a 46 yard touchdown on the return. Tennessee had staked a 30-14 lead midway through the second quarter, and the Gator crowd was absolutely silent (to this point, Florida had lost in the Swamp only twice since Spurrier's arrival in 1990).
Then the barrage started.
Danny Wuerffel led his Gators on seven straight touchdown drives, and by the time it was all over, the wounded Vols staggered off the field having surrendered an incredible 62 points. I'll repeat: Florida hung SIXTY TWO POINTS on Tennessee, and most of it came in the span of about two and a half to three quarters. No matter what the Volunteers tried to do, it didn't work. Not even a Category Five storm could stop this club. No, I'm being dead serious: God actually tested this out by sending one down to the Swamp. Like everything the Volunteers tried, the heavy rainshower failed to slow the Fun n' Gun. It mattered not the least that Tennessee scored 37, because, in case you haven't heard, Florida scored SIXTY TWO.
Except for maybe Georgia, there is no team that Spurrier loved taking shots at than Tennessee. He obviously loved scoring points at a Madden-ready rate, but he seemed to take special pleasure in putting it to the Dawgs and Vols on the scoreboard and then taunting them in the post game press conference. He actually didn't say too much in this case, after his team hung SIXTY TWO on Tennessee (all right, I'll stop doing that), but he didn't exactly apologize for it, either.
Phil Fulmer, for his part, didn't take too kindly to the 48-point explosion, though he refused to actually blame Spurrier for ordering it. His quote: "It's my job to stop it. If I can get 62, I'll get 62." Well, I'll give Phil Fulmer credit: he's a man of his word. The good news for Tennessee is that he scored more than 62 on Florida. The bad news for Tennessee is that it took him three full games plus an overtime (which Tennessee won) to do it.