Chances are you have read a few pieces about the good ol’ days of the Florida-Tennessee football rivalry this week. Those stories are not very different from 2017, or 2016, or 2015, or 2014…
… or 2013, or 2012, or 2011, or 2010.
The last time a Florida-Tennessee game truly captured the imagination of national college football fans was in 2009. That year’s Gators-Vols game was memorable not because of the quality of play on the field, either. The two teams slogged through a very ugly contest. What made that game sizzle on a national level was the infantile, clown-show behavior of then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who — in a preview of his USC tenure and its own bizarre incidents, detailed here — seemed to be interested in pranking his opponent more than defeating it. Kiffin reveled in playing Tim Tebow — and Urban Meyer’s last great Florida team — close. He coached not to win, but to cover the spread. He was more concerned about Florida being restrained than about Tennessee succeeding.
No wonder Kiffin bailed on the Vols after only one season, taking his mischief to Los Angeles and enduring more seasons of failure.
Yes, that was the last time Tennessee-Florida gained national headlines.
The last time a Tennessee-Florida game was nationally significant (the 2009 Vols were never a threat to do anything in the SEC) was in 2008. The Vols had lost to UCLA in the weeks prior to their reunion with the Gators, but at the time, Rick Neuheisel was the Bruins’ coach. That season-opening loss stung for UT, but there was a belief that UCLA had a chance to be good. The Bruins didn’t become good as that year evolved, but in early September, the mystery of the 2008 season was still abundant as the Vols and Gators prepared to meet.
That mystery remained until kickoff. Florida behind eventual Heisman winner, Tim Tebow, pulled away for a 59-20 win.
The rivalry has failed to improve in the 10 years since that blowout.
Peyton Manning, Al Wilson, Deon Grant, Tee Martin, Peerless Price, Casey Clausen, Travis Stephens.
Danny Wuerffel, Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, Tony George, Jabar Gaffney, Rex Grossman.
Tidal waves of delicious memories are associated with those names, the people we remember from the golden age of Vols-Gators. From 1992 through 2001, the first 10 years of the SEC Championship Game, no school other than Tennessee or Florida won the SEC East. Georgia didn’t break through until 2002. UT-UF was always consequential in those years, and from 1995-2001, the game often had national championship implications.
From 1995-1998, either Tennessee or Florida made the national championship game or, at the very least, had a chance to gain a share of the title in the season-ending poll. (UT might have split with Michigan had it been able to upset Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl.) In 2001, the Tennessee-Florida winner was going to enter the SEC Championship Game with a chance to play for a spot in the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl. Tennessee defeated Florida but then got upset by a coach named Nick Saban over at LSU.
If some of the Tennessee-Florida games from 2002 through 2008 still contained a measure of national significance, none matched the stakes presented in 2001, and none matched the heavyweight feel provided by Vols-Gators from 1995 through 2001.
These 17 years after Rex Grossman’s tying 2-point pass fell incomplete in the back of the end zone in The Swamp, Tennessee and Florida are less relevant than ever on the national scene. Saturday’s reunion in Knoxville feels more like a “who might not make a bowl” battle than a contest to see which team might challenge Georgia in the East.
Neither team is in UGA’s zip code right now.
Beyond trying to regain relevance, however, Florida and Tennessee face a shared problem which is hard for fans of both programs to ignore: Not only are these teams not particularly good at the moment; they aren’t even easy on the eyes.
Remember last year’s festival of errors? Remember Butch Jones not giving John Kelly the ball inside the 10? Remember Florida trying to gain some semblance of consistency with its passing game? The 2017 edition of Vols-Gators wasn’t as bad as the 2014 contest in Knoxville which made TV viewers want to gouge their eyes with a fork, but it was still hard to take.
“At least give me a show if you’re going to be bad,” some people might say. At least be entertaining if you’re not going to be elite.
Vols-Gators hasn’t even lived up to that modest level of hope and pleading in a number of its recent iterations.
Yes, maybe Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen will, in the course of time, lift these programs back to where they feel they belong. Yet, it seems clear that these are not quick fixes and not programs which are ready to compete with Georgia. Merely competing with South Carolina this year isn’t a given, though we will soon see.
How far have Tennessee and Florida fallen since 2001 and the glory days of a once-golden rivalry?
Far enough that making substantial improvements in 2018 would not even create championship aspirations — it would merely relieve fears that a total collapse is imminent.
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