Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, the rivalry between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers was as big a tool in shaping the national landscape in college football as just about any other rivalry. Every matchup from 1990 to 2001 featured at least one of the teams being ranked in the top 10. Each year, the team that emerged victorious on that Saturday in September was seemingly set up for a run at the national title. Florida-Tennessee was as bright a stage as it got in college football.
Along with the dramatic finish last season, with Antonio Callaway racing to endzone for a 63-yard touchdown on 4th and 14, which completed a two touchdown comeback in the 4th quarter and ripped the hearts out of the Tennessee faithful yet again, the matchup has never failed to provide us with memorable moments:
- Danny Wuerffel and the Gators putting up 35 in the first half in ’96, en route to the team’s first national championship that season.
- Florida once again defeating Peyton Manning in ’97, forever leaving Peyton with a blemish in the form of an 0-4 record against Florida on his decorated college career.
- Tennessee tasting sweet revenge with an overtime win in ’98, on their way to the national title.
- Jabar Gaffney’s catch(?) in 2000, where the refs controversially signaled that Gaffney held on to the ball juuuust long enough to be ruled a touchdown reception with just seconds to go, giving Florida the win.
- The following year in 2001, when the game was pushed back to December because of the attacks on 9/11. The two teams came in to the game ranked in the top 5, and both still in national title contention. Tennessee held on to a 34-32 win, and walked out of The Swamp victorious for the first time since 1971.
- 2004, when James Wilhoit drilled a 50-yard field goal in the final seconds to knock off the Gators, after a much debated unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Gator Dallas Baker.
But what happened in the subsequent years after 2004, I don’t think either side saw coming. When that field goal sailed through the uprights on that clear Knoxville night, it signaled the last time the Vols have tasted victory against the Gators.
Eleven years later, eleven straight victories for Florida. From blowouts to one point squeakers like the last two meetings, Florida has just found ways to win year after year. And with that, this once illustrious rivalry has become all but that.
You can’t consider a matchup a rivalry without the two teams trading blows, and in the last decade plus, it has been the Gators taking all the shots. You would be hard pressed to find anybody who would have predicted that one team would take such a stranglehold on the series like Florida has, but here we are.
Don’t get me wrong though, there hasn’t been any love lost between the two schools. The passionate hatred from the teams and fans is very much alive and as strong as it has every been.
This offseason has been evidence to that. Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor has never shied away from expressing his feelings and opinions, and he has riled up the folks in Knoxville multiple times this offseason with his words. It started in April when he noticed ESPN’s Football Power Index listed Tennessee as overwhelming favorites to win the SEC East. Tabor went on a Twitter rant expressing his confidence that Florida will make it twelve wins in a row when September rolls around. Then just this week, while on Sirius XM’s B/R Spotlight Show, the junior cornerback started on the Vols again, stating (Transcribed by 247Sports):
“I mean, I don’t know how many times you have to beat somebody over 10 years plus in a row for them to just really own up. It’s just, I mean, I’ve never been beaten 11 years in a row by one team or one person, so I wouldn’t know how that feels. But it’s talked about a lot.”
A disparity in talent is no longer the issue for Tennessee. Most people feel the Vols had the more talented team coming in to last year’s game, and that opinion has carried over to this season.
The big advantage for Florida is the mental game. Eleven wins in a row have the Gators expecting to win the game no matter the circumstances. On the flip side, eleven losses in a row has Tennessee viewing this matchup as a huge obstacle. Last year’s 4th quarter meltdown from the Vols certainly didn’t help their psyche.
Everything you want from a great rivalry is there between Florida and Tennessee, except the most crucial factor. It’s up to Tennessee to exorcise their demons and begin to win and make this a rivalry again. Whether they can or not has become a task easier said than done.