GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For 20 straight seasons, from 1963 to 1982, the University of Florida opened Southeastern Conference play against Mississippi State.
To be honest (and with all due respect to the Bulldogs), the game rarely generated much big-game buzz. And to be equally honest, the middling Gators of so many of those years were half to blame, obviously.
Then came 1996, the year SEC schedule-makers went bold and basically guaranteed plenty of conference hype and drama before the calendar even flipped from summer to fall, in most cases.
Florida vs. Tennessee to open the league season.
The UF-UT rivalry may not have rivaled Alabama-Auburn in ferocity, but during the ‘90s (and a little beyond) it certainly trumped the Iron Bowl in relevancy.
“You can’t spell Citrus Bowl with a ‘U’ and a ‘T,’” a certain visor-wearing (and throwing) Florida coach said on more than one occasion during that era.
Starting in ’96, the UF-UT winner won the SEC Eastern Division five of the next six years, with each team claiming the national championship once along the way. It was The Game of the SEC season and one of the biggest national showdowns of each football season.
The absolute biggest game in September, by far.
That brings us to our Week 2 list, which will focus on significant SEC openers in Florida’s football history. How can those marquee Tennessee matchup not dominant, right?
Here’s our 10:
Sept. 21, 1996
Florida 35, Tennessee 29
Quite simply, it was billed as the biggest game in the history of the state of Tennessee.
Even more simply, it was a blowout -- regardless of what the scoreboard may have said at the end of the game.
Peyton Manning and the second-ranked Volunteers had been looking to this game for months -- especially having been drilled 62-37 in Gainesville the year before -- and an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608 packed Neyland Stadium for this monstrosity.
Less than five minutes into the second quarter, the Gators led 35-0.
“We would’ve liked to have been accused of running up the score, but it didn’t work out that way,” UF coach Steve Spurrier said.
Danny Wuerffel threw four touchdowns and fourth-ranked UF forced six UT turnovers, including four interceptions of Manning, who passed for 492 yards on 65 attempts, with a couple fourth-quarter TDs, the second with 10 seconds left to make it look close.
It was Florida’s fourth straight win in the series.
Sept. 15, 1990
Florida 17, Alabama 13
To this day, Spurrier credits this game for changing the SEC attitude of the Gators.
A week after crushing Oklahoma State 50-7 in the debut coaching his alma mater, Florida fell behind by 10 at the stadium named for Paul “Bear” Bryant, then rallied for 17 straight points, taking the lead in the final period on a blocked punt, to steal the program’s first win at Tuscaloosa since 1963.
“We were behind, on the road, against a big-time conference opponent and were able to come away with a victory,” Spurrier said. “That really made it a special win, not just for me and the team, but all Gators. This is one we’ll remember and hopefully help us down the stretch.”
Shane Matthews threw for 267 yards and a touchdown, but it was Jimmy Spencer’s blocked punt, that Richard Fain fell on in the end zone for a touchdown, that made the difference.
“I think we’ve got something special here,” fullback Dexter McNabb said. “It’s tough to say ... but I don’t think we’d have pulled this one out last year.”
Or many a year before that.
Sept. 19, 1998
Tennessee 20, Florida 17 (OT)
The first overtime in Florida’s football history ended with Tennessee’s first win in the bloodbath series in six years.
A season after Peyton Manning was gone, also.
UF kicker Collins Cooper pushed a 32-yard field goal wide right on Florida’s only overtime possession -- moments after UT counterpart Jeff Hall made good on a 41-yarder -- and a record crowd of 107,653 rejoiced by storming the field and tearing down the Neyland goal posts.
“I don’t know who did well or who didn’t do well,” Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer said. “All I know is we won the game.”
Wideout Travis McGriff did pretty well for the Gators, catching nine passes for 176 yards, but UF had five turnovers, including four fumbles, negating a 396-235 edge in total yards.
UT had no turnovers.
“We tried to catch up for all the turnovers the last few years,” Spurrier said. “Maybe we did.”
How big was the game?
The Vols went on to finish 13-0 and claim the national championship.
Oct. 1, 1960
Florida 18, Georgia Tech 17
Ray Graves was an assistant for Georgia Tech legend Bobby Dodd for nine seasons before coming to Florida for his first head-coaching job.
In his third game, pupil faced mentor -- and pupil won.
One of the biggest victories in Gators history, in fact.
With just over six minutes to go in the game, UF drove 85 yards, with quarterback Larry Libertore pitching an option to Lindy Infante for a 4-yard touchdown with just 33 seconds to play to pull within a point of the 10th-ranked Yellow Jackets.
Graves did not play for the tie.
Libertore dropped, rolled and hit Jon MacBeth for the 2-point conversion and a dramatic one-point victory that sent the Florida Field crowd into a tizzy. And chant.
Two! Two! Two!
We wrecked Tech!
On the sidelines dressed out for the Gators that day: Bobby Dodd Jr.
Sept. 11, 1993
Florida 24, Kentucky 20
Quarterbacks Terry Dean and Danny Wuerffel combined for seven interceptions, yet the Gators had one last desperation chance from the Kentucky 28-yard line.
That’s where Wuerffel lofted a picture-perfect pass to walk-on wideout Chris Doering, who inexplicably snuck behind the Wildcats secondary for the game-winning touchdown with just three seconds left, allowing the seventh-ranked Gators to escape Commonwealth Stadium with a win.
“I couldn’t believe there was no one near me,” Doering said.
A lot of Gators couldn’t believe they won.
“We’re very fortunate,” Spurrier said. “The other team outplayed us, but somehow we made a play at the end to win the game.”
The game was just the second of Wuerffel’s collegiate career and he made plenty of mistakes (three picks), but he showed enough moxie and heroics for Spurrier to tab the redshirt freshman as his starter a week later against Tennessee.
“I wasn’t thinking about the interceptions,” Wuerffel said. “We knew that last drive was it.”
Sept. 14, 1991
Florida 35, Alabama 0
Spurrier was furious when an article in The Birmingham News a couple days before the sixth-ranked Gators faced the 16th-ranked said he predicted a blowout win at booster meeting earlier in the week.
True or not, Spurrier was right.
After an ugly, sloppy, six-point first half, the Gators erupted for four second-half touchdowns, including three scoring passes from Matthews, and handed the 16th-ranked Crimson Tide their worst shutout defeat since a 40-0 loss to rival Auburn in 1957.
Tailback Errict Rhett rushed 23 times for 173 yards and a touchdown, while the Gators rolled up 467 yards of offense. Going in, UF was 0-7 all-time vs. Alabama at home.
“I did not predict a big margin of victory,” Spurrier said afterward. “I did tell a group of Golden Gators, a group of guys who have been around since the ‘20s and ‘30s, that if we finally beat Alabama at home I’d dedicate the game to those guys.”
“So this one’s for them.”
Sept. 18, 1999
Florida 23, Tennessee 21
No UF defensive player (OK, maybe Wilber Marshall vs. USC) ever had a night like Alex Brown had against Vols quarterback Tee Martin and the defending national champions.
Brown, the sophomore defensive end, sacked Martin five times, batted down two passes and intercepted in another in a nationally televised demolition job that rocketed him to notoriety (and eventual first-team All-America status) overnight.
“When we’re at home, we don’t lose,” Brown said.
They almost did. UF quarterback Doug Johnson passed for 343 yards and three touchdowns to stake the fourth-ranked Gators to a 23-7 lead, but the No. 2 Vols closed the gap to two points and Johnson’s second interception gave UT the ball with less than four minutes to go inside Florida territory.
UF linebacker Keith Kelsey smothered Jamal Lewis on fourth-and-3 from the UF 43 with two minutes remaining, with the Gators running the clock out from there.
It was Florida’s sixth win over Tennessee in seven seasons.
Sept. 8, 1984
Florida 21, LSU 21
It was the only SEC blemish on UF’s record during that tumultuous ’84 season. And it wasn’t even a loss.
The Gators took a 14-0 lead against the Tigers, who were coached at the time by Bill Arnsparger, making his collegiate debut. LSU, though, stormed back for 21 straight points, including a Jeff Wickersham-to-Earl Curtis touchdown, plus a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter, to go up 21-14.
After Lorenzo Hampton tied the score with a 15-yard touchdown run midway through the period, the Tigers marched into UF territory, but Juan Betanzos was wide left on a 41-yard field goal, giving the Gators a chance to win the game.
Kerwin Bell led Florida down the field, hitting Ricky Nattiel for a deep gain to the LSU 27, but time expired before the Gators could get their field goal team onto the field.
The outcome gave UF an 0-1-1 record (having lost to Miami the week before in Tampa), but the Gators finished the season 9-1-1 during a campaign when Coach Charley Pell resigned (replaced by offensive coordinator Galen Hall) and the program was placed on NCAA probation for multiple rules violations.
Sept. 27, 1969
Florida 47, Mississippi 35
The “Super Sophs” were no flukes.
A week after bombarding No. 7 Houston with 59 points in the season opener, John Reaves, Carlos Alvarez and the No. 12 Gators went to the Magnolia State and rang up more than 500 yards against the Bulldogs.
Reaves threw for 329 yards, with Alvarez catching 12 passes for 180 yards and a couple touchdowns. Tailback Tommy Durrance rushed for 127 yards, part of a UF ground assault that totaled 253 yards.
It was an ideal start SEC start -- on the road, no less -- for a young team, especially coming off such a head-swelling blowout a week earlier. The Gators went on to win their first six games for only the second time in program history.
Oct. 7, 1933
Florida 31, Sewannee 0
The SEC’s first season was 1933 and both UF and Sewannee were charter members, making this the inaugural league contest for each institution.
Maybe not memorable, but certainly significant.
Jack Henderson threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Wallace Brown for Florida’s first SEC points in school history. Henderson later intercepted a pass and return it 73 yards to set up a score and had a 19-yard for a touchdown.
A couple touchdowns from Charlie Stoltz and a 62-yard sprint from Herb McAnley accounted for all of UF’s scoring that day.
The Gators went on to finish 5-3-1 that season, including 2-3 in the SEC.
For Sewannee, the loss was its first of 37 straight as a conference member before leaving the league in 1940 without ever winning an SEC game.