Saturday September 14, 2013As Gators-Vols Rivalry Opens New Era, UF Seeks Old Result
The Gators host Tennessee on Sept. 21 to open SEC play.
The Gators host Tennessee on Sept. 21 to open SEC play.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They gathered on the banks of the Tennessee River last September as confident as they had been in years about a potential win over the Gators.
More than 102,000 fans crammed into Neyland Stadium, and for other than the small pockets of Florida fans scattered about the massive home of the Volunteers, they came to see the streak end.
It was a celebratory atmosphere last fall in Knoxville. ESPN's "College GameDay" was on campus for the first time in eight years. Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, the Heisman runner-up in 1956 and an icon of the program, was on hand to have his No. 45 jersey retired.
And then a haunting and familiar feeling swept over Tennessee fans that sent them running toward the exits early in the fourth quarter. With the Gators in front by seven, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel dropped back to pass. He threw a quick dart to receiver Frankie Hammond.
Hammond did the rest, slicing the Volunteers' defense for a 75-yard touchdown reception that put the Gators up by 14, essentially sealing their 37-20 victory.
Florida's win streak over Tennessee was now eight in this once highly competitive rivalry.
In his 2009 book "On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era," author Clay Travis, a lifelong Volunteers fan who now works as a college football writer/TV analyst for FOX Sports, pinpointed in his mind the moment this rivalry's recent history was altered.
The events unfolded at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 16, 2006 in Florida's 21-20 win. The No. 7-ranked Gators trailed the 13th-ranked Vols 17-7 in the third quarter. However, two second-half touchdown passes from Chris Leak to Dallas Baker put the Gators in front.
Finally, nursing a one-point lead and with Tennessee driving in Florida territory, Gators defensive back Reggie Nelson intercepted Erik Ainge with less than three minutes remaining. The Gators ran out the clock and later that season hoisted the program's second national championship trophy.
By the time Travis spent the 2008 season with the Vols documenting his book, longtime Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer was on his way out, unable to return the program to elite status or defeat then-Gators coach Urban Meyer.
In his six seasons at Florida, Meyer went 6-0 against Tennessee, defeating Fulmer four times and Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley once apiece.
"If Fulmer had won that single game in 2006, he wouldn't have just beaten Florida, he would have won the SEC East, advanced to the SEC title game, and Urban Meyer would have neither an SEC or national title," Travis wrote. "But Fulmer lost that home game and Florida is ascendant."
In Fulmer's final season, Meyer led the Gators to another win over the Vols in Knoxville and the Gators' second national title in three years.
In the years since, not much has changed.
Gators coach Will Muschamp won both head-to-head meetings with his former colleague Dooley -- they coached together on Nick Saban's LSU staff in the early 2000s -- and he'll try to keep his perfect record against the Vols intact when first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones brings his team to The Swamp a week from today.
The Gators are coming off a 21-16 loss at Miami, a defeat that snapped Florida's 16-game September win streak that stretches back to that 2008 season when Florida lost an early season home game to Ole MIss. The loss to the Rebels inspired an emotional Tim Tebow to deliver his famous "The Promise" speech afterward.
This is the first time in a decade the Gators enter their annual matchup with the SEC East rival Vols with a loss. The last time that happened was in 2003, when the Gators lost at Miami in the season's second game, returned home to blow out Florida A&M before losing at home to the Vols, 24-10.
The next season the Gators lost 30-28 at Tennessee, which is the last time the Vols beat the Gators and the only time since 1990 -- when the schools started playing each other every season -- that Tennessee has won two in a row in the series.
While the Gators have dominated Tennessee recently, this was one of college football's great rivalries in the 1990s when Fulmer and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier squared off each September. Either the Gators or Vols represented the SEC East in the conference championship game every season from 1992-2001.
"Tennessee will come back,'' Saban said at SEC Media Days in July. "It happens to everybody. Right now Tennessee is going through a little bit of a down cycle and it's all of a sudden like playing them doesn't count."
The Gators spent much of their bye week trying to correct mistakes they made at Miami. Florida committed five turnovers and scored only one touchdown on six trips inside the red zone. Meanwhile, the Vols traveled to face No. 2-ranked Oregon following home wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky in their first two games under Jones, who replaced Dooley after three seasons at Cincinnati.
At SEC Media Days, Jones smiled when asked if Tennessee fans have reminded him of Florida's dominance of their rivalry in recent years.
"Hear it all the time,'' Jones said. "Obviously being at Tennessee, we have a lot of rivalry games. I've heard that about Florida, obviously. I've heard that about Alabama. In order for us to make those rivalry games, we have to get back to being relevant and winning those football games."
The Vols have lost six consecutive games to the Crimson Tide.
Jones is Tennessee's fourth head coach since the Vols last beat the Gators -- fifth if you count interim coach Jim Chaney, who replaced Dooley in the regular-season finale a year ago. Over that span, Tennessee has had five losing seasons, including three in a row under Dooley, who went 15-21 in Knoxville.
Despite Florida's recent success against the Vols, Muschamp is reminding this year's Gators that they haven't won any of them.
"Those eight victories have nothing to do with what's going to happen Saturday," Muschamp said this week. "It's starting our SEC season and a team and university we have a lot of respect for. I wish we could line up and play this weekend. We created this issue and we need to circle the wagons here."
Jones climbed the coaching ranks under Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, serving on Kelly's staff at Central Michigan. When Kelly left for Cincinnati, Jones replaced him at Central Michigan. When Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame, Jones once again followed in Kelly's footsteps and took over the Bearcats program.
Jones owns a 50-27 record in six seasons as a head coach and has helped re-energize a program and fan base that never seemed to warm to Dooley and still openly shares its disdain for Kiffin, who sent the program into a spiral when he bolted for USC after only one season at UT.
When asked to sum up Kiffin's tenure, former Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton offered up a one-word answer to reporters in the wake of Kiffin's unexpected and untimely exit.
"Brief,'' Hamilton said.
The Vols hope better days are ahead under Jones.
"Everybody is a big bucket of gasoline is the way I feel about it," senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "Coach Jones is that match, that spark that's going to make the whole barrel of gasoline explode. That's what we need."
The Gators want to make sure that explosion doesn't happen a week from today at The Swamp. They want to keep their win streak intact and send Vols fans home with the same feeling Travis had as he watched the Gators dominate Tennessee 30-6 in 2008, his season writing "On Rocky Top."
"I'm not sure we will ever beat Florida again in my life,'' Travis texted a friend as Florida fans Gator Chomped all around him late in the game.