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.
Gators struggle early-survive Saturday in Nashville
The Gators can’t say they weren’t warned.
A young team with an unproven quarterback had just scored the biggest victory of its season against a top-10 opponent. The misery of early September had been washed away by a series of steadily better and more encouraging performances. The Gators grew and developed, just as any fan would hope for in a transitional season under a first-year head coach. No one expected all the pieces to perfectly fit together, but Florida gradually assembled the puzzle and solved several of its biggest problems.
The next step for a team which evolves from chaos into continuity: Maintaining that evolutionary process instead of stopping to rest and think it has it all figured out. Weeks 1 through 6 of the college football season brought the Gators to a much better place, but with a month and a half left in the journey, Florida needed to realize the race — entering its daunting middle stages — was only beginning to take on added textures and tones.
Every challenge surrounding a young football team was neatly crystallized — or not-so-neatly, as it were — in Saturday’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Florida team which had begun to figure out how it wanted to play; the Florida team which had begun to establish and cement the template for the rest of the season; the Florida team which had begun to breathe in the intoxicating aroma of success, and all the temptations that go with prosperity, had to develop tunnel vision and not rest on recent achievements. Playing a late-morning game in a half-filled stadium against a reeling Vanderbilt side, Florida had to shove complacency and human nature into a dungeon, lock the door, and move on.
That proved to be a huge challenge… and not unexpectedly, either.
Believing you are better than you actually are — in that first moment when a team tastes considerable success — is not an easy thing to confront. Young teams and imperfect teams inevitably have to go through the process of playing a game (or many games) in the face of that complacency before they learn how to master and subdue that inclination.
This game against Vanderbilt was a maiden voyage for the 2018 iteration of the Gators. Without question, this experience will do UF a lot of good in 2019, but the more immediate question emerged as Florida sleepwalked through most of the first half in Nashville: Could this 2018 team, warts and all, find the clarity to dig its way out of trouble?
The answer: Yes… and in the way which has defined the Gators in their upward climb this season.
The central characteristic of the Vanderbilt team which limped into Week 7 is that it had been punched in the mouth, outworked and outplayed by two SEC opponents… and Tennessee State. Vanderbilt had conclusively shown that it could not handle a street fight.
In the first half, Vanderbilt threw and landed the punches, en route to a 21-3 lead.
Would the Gators get off the canvas?
Would they immediately show they could take several body blows?
The eruption of tempers among various players and coaches from both teams late in the first half could have cut in either direction. It could have become an indication of how unfocused and unprepared this team was… or it could have become the application of smelling salts the Gators needed.
Safe to say, they woke the heck up.
The Florida offensive line, which has to flex its muscles in order to minimize and guard against Feleipe Franks’ limitations as a passer, began to roll up its sleeves. The concept of physically dominating an opponent is not hard to grasp, but doing it is the hard part, especially after a first half which sent frustrations past the boiling point.
Florida was tested — physically, emotionally, and situationally — on Saturday in Nashville. The Gators were far from perfect, just as they have been all season… and will continue to be.
That is what they are: very flawed, and unlikely to become a great team by the end of November.
What they also are, however, is a team that is winning more than most people expected at the start of this season, especially after the Kentucky game.
Four wins in a row in the SEC is nothing to disregard.
These Gators don’t play beautiful football… but what they lack in aesthetics is more than made up for in the intangible realm.
Gators trip to Vandy starts our Saturday college primer
It’s the second Saturday in October and the games in conference play start to heat up for state schools. Leading of our primer, USF has already won dramatically on Friday night 25-24 over Tulsa in the final seconds. And Florida State has the bye week off their heart breaking 28-27 loss to Miami and now, dealing with the aftermath and cleanup after Hurricane Michael slammed the Panhandle Wednesday.
Still the games will go on an for all three state school teams in action Saturday, they are on the road. So, here here we go in order:
Gators at Vanderbilt
It’s an early kickoff in Nashville for Florida off an emotional hard fought SEC win over newly formed rival LSU last Saturday in the Swamp. The Gators defense locked the Tigers (above) led by linebacker Vosean Joseph’s 14 tackles and two sacks. Florida had three takeaways, including a pick six in the final two minutes that sealed the deal.
Now, off three straight SEC wins, will the Gators stumble against a mediocre Vanderbilt team with an 11 a.m. local kickoff in Nashville?
It would be a third straight SEC road win, if coach Dan Mullen’s team can get it.
UCF at Memphis
In what is sure to be a wild, high-scoring affair, UCF is the “River City” of Memphis, TN, for their second road game of the year (they had one with UNC wiped out by Hurricane Florence in September).
And this is big one.
The unbeaten Knights have risen to #10 in the AP Poll and are on an 18 game win streak. Led by all everything QB McKenzie Milton, UCF goes for yet another win over the Tigers. They bombed Memphis is in the regular season meeting in Orlando and then, won a cliffhanger 62-55 double OT game for the American Conference Title in December and a perfect regular season at 12-0.
Will Memphis, a team that stumbled two weeks ago at Tulane, be able to score with the Knights? Will UCF turn the ball over and make it easier for them? Will UCF run away with this one and flex their muscle, again?
Miami at Virginia
As already written above, the Canes stormed back to beat rival FSU 28-27 a week ago and keep themselves unbeaten in the ACC. Now, they travel to a placed that has haunted them recently, Charlottesville, VA. The Cavaliers have won the last three meetings at home over Miami.
Will red-shirt freshman N’Kosi Perry improve on his overall play this week? Although he threw three TD passes in the second half of the comeback over the Noles, he was shaky for the first 2 1/2 quarters of the game, as Miami fell behind.
If the Cavaliers have a play maker it’s receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who has over 2,000 receiving and over 500 yards rushing in his career.
Miami hopes to continue to bring out the vaunted “Turnover Chain” again and again. They have 14 of them now in six games.
Guess who moved up on our Power Rankings?
We roll out our latest edition of our Power Rankings. And yes, there is definitely a college based theme:
5. Jacksonville Jaguars- The Jags are here mostly due to the fact the Bucs were on BYE, and the Dolphins fell to Cincinnati. FAU and FIU haven’t done enough in the conference USA yet either. The Jags had a rough trip to Kansas City suffering their worse loss of the year. The Chiefs came into the game with a defense that was known to be the weak point of the team. They took that to heart and forced five turnovers. Since the impressive win vs. the Patriots, they have had bad games against Tennessee and Kansas City, and a thumping of the Jets. The Jags look to get back into the win column against the average Cowboys offense.
4. USF Bulls- Jordan Cronkrite ran for 302 yards, and three touchdowns and South Florida improved to 5-0 for the second straight season by beating UMass 58-42. The performance earned the former Gator the AAC player of the week. This was the third game in a row Cronkrite has surpassed 100 yards. Barnett finished 17 for 24 for 209 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He once again didn’t have to do much with the ground game on point. The Bulls will be in action again Friday night against Tulsa on national television.
3. Miami Hurricanes- The Hurricanes drop a spot after they sure made last week interesting last week. They were close to letting FSU and Willie Taggart get his first signature win. Instead, the Canes found their mojo and broke out the turnover chain a few times, followed by 21 unanswered points, and all was well in the Hard Rock. N’Kosi Perry threw four touchdown passes and bounced back from early game struggles. The Hurricanes hadn’t beaten Florida State in consecutive seasons since 2003 and 2004, and still control their destiny in the ACC Coastal. They will take on the Virginia Cavaliers Saturday.
2. Florida Gators- Are the Gators back? Tim Tebow delivered a pre-game speech, so they must be right? They sure looked the part after defeating the LSU Tigers and we’ve moved them up. The defense continued to flex its muscles holding the Tigers to less than 200 yards passing. Lamical Perine was able to grind for 85 yards and two scores, and it was just enough for the Gators to win. Up next is a trip to Nashville against Vanderbilt a program they have struggled with in the past.
1. UCF Knights- Another week another game on the Knights roll. This is just becoming a regular thing like drinking water it seems. McKenzie Milton threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, Adrian Killins rushed for 113 yards and a TD for the Knights in their win over SMU. The Knights got some help with a few top 10 losses and find themselves inside of it now. The question is: if the Knights continue to roll the way they are, can they crash the playoff party? UCF takes on Memphis in an AAC title rematch that will air on ABC at 3:30.
UCF Knights1 day ago
UCF QB McKenzie Milton benched at start of game Saturday night
UCF Knights1 day ago
UCF’s handling of McKenzie Milton situation raises many questions
UCF Knights6 days ago
UCF thrilling win over Memphis scored ratings for ABC/ESPN
UCF Knights1 week ago
Gutsy call by UCF coach Heupel fuels comeback win at Memphis