Gather around small children. I’ve got a story to tell.
You see, back when I was your age (you know, when a gallon of milk cost a nickel, and a trip to school was a long, uphill walk both ways) there was once this great college football rivalry.
This rivalry had it all.
It annually featured two Top 10 teams and packed stadiums, not to mention a pair of programs that genuinely hated each other’s guts. There were great players, greater games and a once-in-a-generation ball coach, the likes of which we’ve never quite seen before or since. And oh by the way, this game almost always came with big-time pressure; even though it was played in September, this rivalry almost always helped determine the eventual SEC champion. It usually shaped the national title picture too.
So what was this great rivalry, maybe my personal favorite of the era?
That rivalry was Tennessee-Florida, children.
Yes kids, I’m being serious.
No, no, come back. Story time isn’t over…
Ok, I’ll quit it with the terribly cheesy intro, but I won’t quit the hyperbole, or the belief that Tennessee-Florida was one of the great forgotten rivalries of my childhood. From a personal standpoint, none shaped me into the sports fan or writer I am today either.
You see, unlike most of you reading this article, I didn’t grow up in a house where college football- or football at all- was a birthright. Neither of my parents cared much for the sport, and instead we spent most of our spring, summer and fall evenings flipping back and forth between baseball games and the winter watching UConn basketball. It’s safe to say that not only did I grow up without having a “team” in college or pro football, but I barely paid attention to the sport at all.
Still, being the emerging, burgeoning sports fan I was, I always did pay careful attention every September when Florida and Tennessee got together. Understand that at the time, I didn’t know the rules of football, didn’t know the specifics of the game and didn’t know what I do now about the great history and tradition at places like Alabama, Oklahoma and USC. What I did know though, was at the time, Tennessee-Florida was huge. Again, I was young, so I can’t say whether the game was bigger than Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan, or even Florida-Florida State (my hunch tells me no). But it sure did feel that way though.
Still, none seemed to “matter” year in and year out quite like Tennessee-Florida either.
Understand that in the mid and late 90’s Georgia was an up-and-down program, South Carolina was hardly the SEC East power they are now, and Kentucky and Vandy were, as they always are, Kentucky and Vandy. So when Florida and Tennessee got together, not only were both always ranked in the Top 10, but it almost always determined who would win the SEC East title. Meaning that by mid-September, one team was in the driver’s seat to Atlanta, while one was almost permanently behind the eight-ball, their season unofficially ruined.
Go ahead and think about that for a second. Think about all the pressure that comes with a game like Michigan-Ohio State or Alabama-LSU, late season matchups that almost always determine their particular conference championships. Think about all the build-up, all that do-or-die, now-or-never, our-season-will-be-made-or-broken heaviness that comes with those games. You don’t need me to tell you it’s pretty freakin’ intense.
Now take the pressure of those games, put it in September, and understand that if you lose that game, the season is essentially over. That even with two and a half months left, there might not be enough time to make up ground in the conference standings or in the polls and that your season likely unofficially ended with a loss in mid-September. That was Florida and Tennessee in the late 1990’s. Each school could go 8-0 from September 15 on and it wouldn’t mean anything if they lost that first SEC game. From 1992 to 2006, the winner of Florida-Tennessee won 11 out of 14 SEC East titles. The loser, not one.**
(Aaron’s note: A few readers have pointed out that I was wrong, and that in 1997, Peyton Manning’s senior year, the Vols actually did lose to Florida and still came back to win the SEC East. The irony? That year, Florida finished the year at, you guessed it, the Citrus Bowl.)
Really though, if Tennessee-Florida were just about pure football, I doubt I’d be writing about it these years later. After all, games come and go, scores are forgotten, and only the biggest diehards remember the details years later. But what made Florida-Tennessee so special wasn’t necessarily just the games and outcomes, but the people surrounding them. And in that regard, one person stood out above all others: The old-ball coach, Steve Spurrier.
Now for those of you who are a bit younger and have just started following college football these last few years, understand that the Steve Spurrier you see now is not the one I grew up with. This Steve Spurrier, the 2012 version is just a watered down, diet, PG version of the guy who was at Florida.
That Steve Spurrier? Well, that guy made college football in the mid-1990’s. He might not have been the best coach of the generation (that edge would go to Tom Osbourne), but he was the man on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the guy that everybody either loved or hated.
That Steve Spurrier had it all. He had the visor, which he wasn’t afraid to throw at a moment’s notice. He had his “ball plays” which made the Florida Gators the closest thing we had to Oregon’s offense at the time. He had the players, including a slew of quarterbacks who were never quite the same once someone else started coaching them. And boy oh, boy did he have the mouth too. Simply put, there isn’t a single coach in college football right now who is a better smack-talker that Spurrier was in hey-day. Nobody even close.
And you better believe the team that was on the wrong end of so much of that smack was the Tennessee Vols.
Now part of it was just that Spurrier always seemed to have their number; the old ball coach went 8-4 overall against Tennessee, including five straight at one point.
What really made the rivalry special was the dichotomy between he and his contemporary, Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer. The two couldn’t have been more different, and above all, it was the pair which made Tennessee-Florida so unique.
Like I said, Spurrier was the fast-talking, smack-wielding, bully, all characteristics that were in direct contrast to the folksy, good old boy demeanor of Fulmer. But while those traits are admirable, it also left Fulmer one step behind Spurrier in the war of words too. If anything, watching the duo go back and forth in the media was a lot like seeing a kid get picked on at recess. After first you brush it off, and hope it’s a one-time thing. After a while though, you start to feel bad, and eventually feel like somebody should step in and break it up.
(For the record, Spurrier’s most famous line, is still one that seems to come up every so often this time of year, when he once said: “You can’t spell Citrus without UT.”
At the time, the Citrus Bowl (now the Capital One Bowl) was the destination of the second or third place SEC team. It was also the place Tennessee always seemed to end up in, usually thanks in large part to an early season loss to Florida.)
Of course if Spurrier was the coach best associated with the rivalry, then Peyton Manning is the player who’ll be best remembered from those days as well.
For starters, please understand one thing: For lack of a better term, at the time, Peyton Manning was “The S**T!!” in college football terms. He was the guy who looked like a pro on the field, and acted like one off the field too, going to local hospitals and things of the nature. In essence, Manning was the clichéd, “Everything that’s right about college sports” default guy, the same way that Tim Tebow took the same title a few years later. As a matter of fact, if you go ahead, close your eyes and picture the hype of Tebow, with the skill of Andrew Luck and the criticism of Cam Newton, that was basically Manning’s last few years at Tennessee.
Of course many of you are probably wondering why I threw the word “criticism” in there, but really, the answer is simple. That’s because for all the success Manning had on the field; all the wins, all the awards, all the everything, …the one thing he never could seem to do was beat Florida. As a matter of fact, when Manning decided to pass up being the No. 1 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft to return for his senior year, one of the first people to pipe up with an opinion was Spurrier.
I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.
There’s that damn Citrus Bowl again. Still, Spurrier’s point was clear: If you want to win a National Championship, you’ve still got to get through us first.
(By the way, when I saw that quote in research for this article I couldn’t help but think one thing: Could you ever imagine a college coach throwing a player under the bus like that in the media world we live in today?
Frankly, I don’t think I can, and I’m pretty sure if a coach called out a college player like that in 2012, the internet might literally explode because of it. There are too many hyper-critical blogs and too many angry writers and reporters (yeah, I’m looking at you Skip Bayless) nowadays. Heck, forget the media. I’m pretty sure Mike Slive would hit Spurrier with a fine if he even thought about saying something like that in 2012.
I guess that’s just the way the world works now. Still interesting to think about none the less.)
Anyway, as history taught us, Manning never did beat Florida. In the same way that “Will Manning ever beat Brady” later became the biggest storyline in the NFL, his college career was always marred by his inability to best the Gators. From his sophomore to senior years, Peyton Manning went 32-2 as a starter against everyone other Florida. He went 0-3 against the Gators.
And it really did seem like that year, 1997, was the apex of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry as we knew it.
Sure there were still big games, and yes, the matchup determined three eventual National Champions, including just one season later when Manning was gone, Tee Martin beat Florida and the Vols won the first ever BCS title game against Florida State. Eventually though Spurrier left, Fulmer lost his swag, and at some point Tennessee-Florida didn’t feel quite feel like Tennessee-Florida anymore. With both programs struggling the last few years, the game has become nothing more than an after-thought.
Which brings us back to this Saturday’s showdown between the two at Neyland Stadium.
Now is this game as important as those in the 1990’s and early 2000’s? Absolutely not. Georgia and South Carolina (that damn Spurrier guy again!) are still heavy favorites in the SEC East race, and even they are underdogs to LSU and Alabama in the grand scheme of the SEC title picture. Simply put, both Tennessee and Florida are not only way down the National Championship totem pole, but the SEC’s as well. Nobody is denying that.
At the same time, for the first time in a while, this game does matter.
Sure, neither will likely win the division, but unlike the last couple years, the winner will at least be in the discussion. On the other side, this could be the start of a slippery slide back to the middle of the SEC for the loser on Saturday. Sure both fan-bases are happy with key early season victories (for Tennessee it was NC State, Texas A&M for Florida). But still, ask most and they’ll tell you that this is the game that’ll shape the narrative of their seasons.
But whether the SEC East champ comes out of this game or not, what’s most important (at least to this writer) is that the game is at least relevant again. Both teams enter Saturday ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1997, and for the first time since 2004, College Game is coming…. to the Vols citayyyyyyyy. Plus, between Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and others, the skill on the field is starting to approach the old days as well.
So will Saturday’s matchup harken us back to the days of Spurrier and Peyton, Fulmer and all those Citrus Bowls? The answer is no. Then again we may never get back there again, period.
But now, in the middle of September 2012, does Tennessee-Florida at least mean something?
Thankfully, yes it does.
It might not quite be the old days.
But things are better than they’ve been.
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