Continuing our countdown from No. 10 that began yesterday...
No. 13 Tennessee 30, No. 11 Florida 28 (September 18, 2004)
This one still hurts, even more than the 2001 game, because even though I "watched" the Gators' magical runs in 1995, 1996 and 2001, I was one and a half, two and a half and seven and a half years old, respectively. If I remember right, 2004 was about the time I started having enough awareness to actually write about games from pure memory, and this was my first introduction to bitter defeat that would last a lifetime. Anyway, it started out like any other good SEC football game: both teams trading punches, each team having a lead at one point, and everybody had that feeling that it was going to come down to the end. I can probably pinpoint what happened after the final touchdown of the game as the moment where things deviated from normal. Florida was up 28-21 when Erik Ainge hit Jayson Swain to apparently tie it up with a little more than three minutes left when James Wilhoit, who had never done this before in his life, missed the PAT. He didn't shank it, and it wasn't blocked, he simply missed it. So Florida still led, 28-27.
All the Gators had to do was get two first downs and then take knees and the game would be over. The Gators, true to form for Ron Zook's teams late in games, managed one and then stalled. After the third down play, Dallas Baker of Florida and Jonathan Wade got into what high school kids these days call a "cat fight". Both supposed "men" landed girlish slaps on each others' helmets; however, only Baker was flagged. What a lot of Gator fans forget is that the 15 yard penalty marked off alone didn't hurt the Gators much; the subsequent failure to restart the game clock hurt a lot more, because Tennessee got the ball with 43 seconds left. Should the game clock have been restarted following the penalty the way the rules say they should, Florida could have drained the game clock for up to 19 additional seconds before punting.
Instead, Erik Ainge calmly directed the Vols into field goal range, where Wilhoit earned his redemption in the form of a game winning 50 yard field goal. No, I'm not still haunted about that. Not at all. Because should any Tennessee fan use this game as some kind of avenue for smack talk, look a little farther own the list and Gator fans will find the equalizer. Not that you need to look to know which game I'm talking about, of course. But anyway, we'll get there eventually. For now, let's focus on this exhibit of highway robbery before we get to the one that benefitted Florida.
Jeremy Foley and the Gator Nation can point to the 2004 Mississippi State game as the "Final Zookening", or the game that effectively ended Ron Zook's tenure at Florida. But I have to believe that this game played a part in it. If Florida goes on the road and knocks off Tennessee, I think Zook keeps his job for another year, even with the loss to MSU. I don't believe Foley would have been so anxious to find a reason to can Zook had Florida come away with this win, even considering the horrible officiating. And coupled with the win at Florida State to end the season, Zook would have had a decent case to stay.
But the fact is, Florida lost this game, which turned out to be good in the long run because Florida hired this guy named Urban Meyer, who took the world by storm by winning two BCS titles in his six years. So Florida fans should actually thank Bobby Moreau, the ref who made the atrocious call on Baker and then froze the game clock, because without him, Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Joe Haden, Brandon James, Ahmad Black, Brandon Spikes and numerous others very well may have played their college careers elsewhere.
No. 7 Florida 21, No. 13 Tennessee 20 (September 16, 2006)
The Gators started this game off fairly well, with Chris Leak connecting with Dallas Baker for a touchdown in the early going. But from that point on, Tennessee dominated the first half. James Wilhoit made a field goal Lucas Taylor hit LaMarcus Coker on a reverse pass for a touchdown and then Montario Hardesty added a touchdown run. Midway through the third, it was 17-7 Tennessee, and Erik Ainge foolishly felt confident enough to do a few mock Gator Chomps.
But Chris Leak proceeded to grow up before the audience's very eyes. He led two huge touchdown drives, each capped with a TD pass to Baker, to push Florida up by one after Wilhoit made a second field goal. Oh, and as a preview of what was to come in ensuing years, Tim Tebow powered his way to a 1st down on a 4th and 1 situation just moments before Leak hit Baker for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
Whatever you want to say about Chris Leak through his first three years at Florida is fair game. But nobody could ever question his leadership abilities in his senior year in Gainesville. He became Florida's all time passing king, led the Gators to a BCS Championship and directed several clutch drives when he was counted on to.
It all started in this game. This was the first time Leak led the Gators to victory in this magical season for Florida, so it took lots of people by surprise, but it would not be the last. To be able to win in front of a packed Neyland Stadium crowd (remember, the rivalry was intense back then) gave him a huge lift of confidence and experience that he would need for the rest of the year. While the defense led the way and got the press, the Gators' offense put up 79 points in the SEC and BCS Championship Games, and it was more often than not Chris Leak who was pulling the trigger.
Had Florida lost to the Volunteers, the Gator fans (oh, what an impatient bunch we are) would have undoubtedly clamored for Tim Tebow to be the starter about ten times louder than they already were. Without much success yet to keep fans at bay, Meyer may have succumbed to the pressure and thrown Tebow in the fire against, say, LSU. Sure, THAT game worked out fine, but maybe if Tebow had taken the majority of the snaps and not just the three that resulted in touchdowns, that game, and the season, could have been very, very different because Tebow was likely not ready. Grooming him for 2007 worked perfectly; had he started in 2006 and had a nightmare campaign, it might not have.
No. 6 Tennessee 20, No. 2 Florida 17 (OT) (September 19, 1998)
As usual, both teams were very highly ranked coming into the game, with Florida being ranked a couple of spots ahead. Without Peyton Manning, most figured the Vols would take a step back in 1998. And of course, Florida had won five straight, so they should have been able to win their sixth in a row over this weakened Tennessee team in convincing fashion, right?
Wrong. Tee Martin played the ultimate game managing QB and Tennessee pounced on four Gator fumbles as neither team could break away from the other. It was tied at 10 at halftime and 17 after the fourth quarter, so the game went into overtime. The Vols got the ball first, and Jeff Hall made Tennessee's possession worth something with a field goal. Florida got the ball with a chance to force a second overtime or win the game, but Collins Cooper's 32 yard field goal sailed wide, and Tennessee fans unleashed five straight years of frustration by storming the field and knocking down the goalposts.
Nobody knew it at the time, but this game might have been a de facto national semifinal game. Had Florida beaten Tennessee, the Gators would have won the SEC East, because they didn't lose again. Had Florida won the SEC Championship Game over Mississippi State, it would likely have faced Florida State (which had beaten Florida, 23-12, in November) in a rematch for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.
Instead, it was Tennessee who won the SEC East, the SEC, and the national championship, and all that was set up by winning this game. The Gators had relegated the Volunteers to the likes of the Citrus Bowl or the Orange Bowl for five straight years by beating them, but with this win, the Volunteers were finally able to make the jump to the highest rung there was in college football. And they took full advantage, knocking off Florida State for their first national championship since 1967.
No. 4 Florida 27, No. 9 Tennessee 23 (September 16, 2000)
Florida and Tennessee both came into this game ranked slightly lower than usual, but with all the heartbreaking moments endured by both in recent years (Peyton's fourth loss to Florida in 1997, Florida's OT loss in 1998), the game took on a huge role. On this day, Tennessee was plagued by a hilarious (for Florida fans, anyway) inability to finish drives. The result was five Alex Walls field goals, and a 23-20 Tennessee lead late in the fourth quarter. Note to Tennessee fans: if you finish off just two of those five drives for touchdowns, the score is 31-20, and the agonizing finish to the game I'm about to describe never would have happened.
With 2:14 to go and down three, Florida was backed up to its own 8 yard line. Jesse Palmer then proceeded to lead one of the greatest drives in Gator history, capped by one of the most egregiously blown calls I have ever seen. Palmer flung a laser to Jabar Gaffney, who briefly touched the ball with both hands and then had it knocked out. The ref signaled touchdown while the ball bounced around on the turf.
Here's the problem with Vols fans saying that call cost them the game: that pass was on second down with 14 seconds left. The Gators would have still had a third down play, and had that failed, they would have gone for a chip shot field goal to force overtime. At worst, it cost Tennessee a shot at overtime, but there's no telling who would have won it. It does not even come close to the 15 yards and 19 seconds gift wrapped to Tennessee four years later. The call itself was probably worse, but it did not have anywhere near the ripple effect the boneheaded flag did on Dallas Baker.
The win propelled Florida to its first SEC Championship since 1996, even though this was nowhere close to being Steve Spurrier's best team. The Gators crushed Auburn 28-6 to earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl, where they wound up losing to- who else- Miami. But had they lost this game, it wouldn't have really mattered. Everybody else in the SEC East had at least three losses, so this would have been Florida's second loss and they still would have made it to Atlanta. It was more of a motivational boost, and proof that the Gators did indeed own Tennessee- having won seven of the previous eight.
As for Tennessee, however, this loss was the beginning of a major tailspin. The Vols lost two out of their next three games before they were finally revived from their swoon and scrambled to an 8-3 finish and a berth in the Cotton Bowl, which they lost. But this game definitely took its toll on the Vols in losses to unranked LSU and then 19th ranked Georgia. Had Tennessee beaten Florida (read: quit whining about the calls and actually play defense; Florida still drove 92 yards in two minutes), they might have been more mentally in those games.
No. 3 Florida 33, No. 4 Tennessee 20 (September 20, 1997)
Peyton Manning returned for his senior year at Tennessee for one reason: To win a championship. But to do so, he would have to beat Florida.
Steve Spurrier joked that there another reason: "I know why Peyton wanted to come back for his senior year: He wanted to be a three-time Citrus Bowl MVP!" And Spurrier had previously observed that "You can't spell Citrus without the UT." Florida entered the game fresh off a national title, while Tennessee was looking for its first win over Florida since 1992. This one felt seismic.
With all the buildup, the game itself was almost a letdown. Peyton threw two more picks, one of them to Tony George, who took it coast to coast to put Florida up 14-0 and it was basically over. Tennessee never got it closer than seven points, and never even had the ball with a chance to tie. Anybody watching this game knew just how badly Tennessee wanted to pull the upset, but instead, it just ended up with another Florida celebration in the Swamp.
Where to start? Let's see, Peyton Manning, generally recognized as one of the great college and pro quarterbacks of all time, ends his brilliant college career winless against the Florida Gators. That's a pretty good weapon for Florida fans to have in a trash talking battle. There's also the fact that this was the Gators' 5th straight win over Tennessee. Despite Tennessee being a powerhouse throughout Spurrier's reign at Florida, they went just 4-8 against his teams... and this game epitomized why, and also why Florida has lost to Tennessee just six times since the Vietnam War.
All signs pointed at this being the year that Tennessee would exorcise its demons against Florida. Manning was back. Florida lost several significant players from its championship team from a season ago. And Tennessee had lost four straight to Florida, so, you know, they have to win sometime, right? But that's just not how this series goes. I'm sorry, Tennessee fans, but look at the numbers. Florida just about always wins this game, even when Tennessee is the better team. Even when all the stars are aligned right, Tennessee just doesn't win. There are exceptions, sure, but I'm talking about the last 27 meetings, of which Florida has won 21.
That brings us to today. If history (meaning, the 1997 game) is any indication, Florida is going to win not because of superior athletes or coaching, but because they're destined to. I'm not exactly the biggest believer in that kind of stuff, but look at the numbers, then and now. Florida appears to be the heavy favorite over the Vols, even after the disgraceful performance against Miami. And there are plenty of Gator fans who want something to smile about. So if Florida does indeed beat the boys who sing "Rocky Top" about three hundred times a game, Gator fans will be sure to laugh very loudly.