GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida-Tennessee rivalry of the modern era has experienced other makeovers since the schools started playing annually in 1990.
In Steve Spurrier’s first season, Johnny Majors’ Vols won by 42 on a miserable night in Neyland Stadium for the Gators. Three years later, the Gators took control of the rivalry by starting a five-year win streak in a stretch dominated by quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning. As great as Manning was in college, he could never beat Wuerffel and the Gators.
Phillip Fulmer’s Vols finally snapped the skid and won a national title in 1998 with Tee Martin taking the snaps, opening a stretch in which Tennessee won four of seven meetings. The momentum shifted again once Urban Meyer took over Florida in 2005. Fulmer never beat Meyer, losing four in a row before being replaced by Lane Kiffin.
The No. 1-ranked Gators quieted Kiffin in a much-hyped 2009 game in Kiffin’s only season in Knoxville.
And with the 41st all-time meeting between the SEC East rivals on tap for Saturday afternoon at The Swamp, the rivalry has a new look in 2011. One defined by familiarity and a common theme: two programs trying to re-establish their places among the elite.
Meyer is gone, replaced by first-year Gators coach Will Muschamp. On Tennessee’s sideline is Derek Dooley, a former colleague of Muschamp’s who is trying to lead the Vols to their first win against Florida in seven years.
Muschamp and Dooley know each other well, but they don’t chat as much as they used to.
“Not much now,’’ Muschamp deadpanned Monday when asked how often they talk on the phone.
Muschamp and Dooley worked together on Nick Saban’s staff at LSU from 2001-04, and then both followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Muschamp left after a season to become defensive coordinator at Auburn, while Dooley returned to the college game in 2007 as head coach at Louisiana Tech.
Dooley replaced Kiffin a year ago, finishing 6-7 in his first season. Like the Gators, Tennessee enters Saturday’s game 2-0 after wins over Montana and Cincinnati. The Vols are trying to win their first three games of the season for the first time in seven years.
“We took care of two opponents we should have taken care of, and we did them the way Tennessee should take care of them,’’ Dooley told reporters Monday. “I told them, that's good. That's a good start. Now, what's next? That's what matters.’’
Muschamp has voiced a similar tone in Gainesville after lopsided wins over Florida Atlantic and UAB. While pleased to start his head-coaching career with a pair of wins, Muschamp reminded everyone Monday that the preseason is over.
With Tennessee coming to town for the SEC opener, the intensity is turned up a notch.
“The players have a different buzz in the locker room,’ ’Muschamp said. “When the game was over [Saturday] the guys were excited about the opportunity to play Tennessee and opening SEC play.’’
Both teams are relatively young. Florida has just nine scholarship seniors, its fewest in 30 years. The Vols started three true freshmen on opening day – linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, and cornerback Justin Coleman – for the first time since freshman eligibility was reinstated in 1972.
What Muschamp sees in the Vols is a team starting to blossom offensively behind sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after throwing for 405 yards against Cincinnati. The only other quarterback in Tennessee history to do that is Manning.
“You look at their team right now offensively, Tyler Bray is playing some really good football – completed close to 80 percent of his passes,’’ Muschamp said. “They’ve turned around their offense from last year as far as their production is concerned.
“They have some explosive playmakers outside in [receivers] Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rodgers. They are good with the ball after the catch. They’re going to run the football. They’re going to be balanced in what they do with play-action and things.’’
Dooley raved about Florida’s defense Monday. The Gators have allowed only three points in two games and get defensive end Sharrif Floyd back after he missed two games due to an NCAA ruling on his eligibility.
Dooley said the Gators’ young defensive line is “as talented as any group in the country.’’
While some of his teammates tried to downplay the SEC opener on Monday, sophomore Trey Burton understands what Saturday means.
Burton made his first appearance in the Florida-Tennessee rivalry a year ago, scoring the Gators’ final touchdown in a 31-17 win in Knoxville.
“It’s a big game for us and it’s always fun to play SEC games because they count,” Burton said. “It’s a conference game. Our goal is to get to Atlanta, and if we don’t win this game then we won’t be able to get to Atlanta [as easily].’’
When Muschamp was growing up in Gainesville in the 1980s, the Gators and Vols didn’t play every year like they do today. Still, his appreciation of the rivalry runs deep.
He knows what’s at stake every time these teams meet in the SEC opener.
“It’s a great rivalry and it’s in the SEC East and it’s a game we need to play well and win,’’ Muschamp said. “From that standpoint, sure, it’s a really important game and I don’t think you need to tell our players that. They come to a place like Florida to play in a game like this.’’