First in a series
Despite having the toughest record in the NCAA this season, Florida was often criticized for its “weak out of conference schedule” by commentators. Florida fans countered with the observation that the SEC was the toughest conference, so by merely playing an SEC slate Florida had more than proved its worthiness.
Naturally, I agree with the Florida fans side of this argument. But, if one does not play in the SEC, how could one know and respect the level of competition SEC teams, and Florida in particular, play on a near weekly basis? Thus, to the outsider, I have decided to put to paper exactly what it is to face the type of schedule the Gators do on an annual basis. In doing this exercise, I am also soliciting opinions from opposing schools on what makes their rivalries great, and what makes their schedules challenging. Learn from what I have to say, and I as well would like to learn from you.
All great college programs have their rivalries. As a college football fan, I greatly admire and respect such rivalries as Texas – Oklahoma, USC – Notre Dame and Ohio State – Michigan. Miami – Florida State is also a classic rivalry.
At Florida, we have about half a dozen so rivalries. Now this may defy credibility to the outside observer, but as an attendee of over 200 Gator games during the last 20 plus years, I can tell you it is absolutely true, at least from our standpoint. I have been to virtually every SEC stadium, and have seen firsthand the emotions and reactions of our numerous rivalries at work.
Over the coming series, I will examine our “to-the-death!” rivalries between LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State, and our new rivalry with South Carolina. However, let us begin with one of the most heated – the relatively recent grudge match for the SEC East title between Florida and Tennessee.
Florida - Tennessee
Why it is important – As far as SEC rivalries go, Florida – Tennessee does not have a long history, with the two teams meeting only 21 times prior to the SEC reorganization in 1992. However, when UF and UT were placed in the same SEC East conference as a result of the reorganization, this rivalry began in earnest. For much of the 1990’s, the winner of the UF – UT game was the winner of the SEC East. In fact, for the first 10 SEC Championship games, and 12 of 15 overall, the East representative was either Tennessee or Florida (Georgia has been East representative the 3 other times).
Since the Tennessee – Florida game has been mostly the 3rd game on both team’s schedules since 1992, the loser of this game has been virtually shut out of SEC title hopes by mid-September each year. Both teams certainly play the game as if the conference title is on the line, and in fact it usually is.
Why they are good - Of the 36 times the teams have currently met, the record is a very close 19-17 in Tennessee’s favor. And no matter what you think about Phil Fulmer, in the past decade he is the most winning coach by percentage in Division I-A college football. Eight times under Fulmer UT has won 10 or more games, with an undefeated season and MNC in 1998. In the SEC over the past eleven years, Florida and Tennessee are the most winning programs.
Why we hate them – In the SEC, there is a peculiar “contest” to decide which team is the “most redneck”. Florida fans like to look down upon UT fans as “hillbilly”, as portrayed in this common joke –
Q: “What has 200 feet and 70 teeth?”
A: “The first row at Neyland Stadium”
Another popular source of ridicule for Florida fans over Tennessee fans is these 2 UT fans who, through the magic of photoshop, have appeared virtually everywhere over the past couple of years.
If you have ever been among the “not-found-in-nature” orange clad fanatics in 107,000 + seat Neyland stadium as an opposing fan, you can learn to dislike the Volunteers very quickly. The stadium, a bowl so bizarrely steep that it appears if one were to fall forward one would roll about 50 rows, is deafening. Throw in the Purina checkerboard style end zones, and the near perpetual playing of “Rocky Top”, and that dislike can quickly become extreme distaste.
On a competitive basis, the hate began in earnest during Spurrier’s first season when the Vols destroyed the Gators 45-3 in Knoxville. I sat in the torrential rains of this game as the Volunteer cheerleaders mocked the Gator chomp at sullen Gator fans to the tune of “Rocky Top”. The next year the Gators got revenge at home, in a contest so heated that fights broke out among opposing fans (Phil Fulmer’s wife claims to have a cup of piss thrown on her at this game).
After that, we mostly hate them for 1997 and 1998, when they went to the SEC championship instead of us, and especially 2001, when the September 11th rescheduled UF-UT game saw the Vols defeat the Gators 34-32 in what would be Steve Spurrier’s last game at the Swamp, denying the Gators a shot at both the SEC and MNC. 2004 was also a doozy, when the referees made a mistake that allowed the clock to stop, giving UT time to drive for a game winning field goal that they otherwise would not have gotten.
This is a game so passionately heated that it has often been characterized by fighting among rival fans, and the death of two fans in Gainesville some years ago after a game led to a still-in- effect crack down on alcohol consumption in the Gator’s home town.
Why they hate us – Partly because we have been on the winning side since the game became a regular affair in 1990. Partly because Tennessee fans consider Florida fans the most obnoxious fans on the planet (I knew a UT fan that was afraid to come to Gainesville based on stories she had heard).
They also hate us for Jabbar Gaffney’s “catch – non catch” in the 2000 contest at Knoxville. They hate us in that, but for the Gators, the 1990’s would have been the decade of Tennessee football.
Mostly, however, they hate us because native son (Johnson City, TN) Steve Spurrier chose first to play at Florida (and win the Heisman), then to coach at Florida. During the Spurrier era, Florida was 9-4 over UT, and Spurrier never passed an opportunity to take a shot at Tennessee, once famously saying “You can’t spell Citrus Bowl without UT” (the Citrus Bowl was the runner up bowl for the SEC’s second team).
Summary – To you fans of other conferences, imagine if your conference deciding game was played virtually in mid-September every year since 1992? Take Tennessee’s 1993 season as an example. After losing by 7 to Florida in Gainesville the 3rd game of the year, they ran the table to finish the regular season 10-1. Their reward? A trip to the Citrus Bowl, while Florida beat Alabama for the SEC title and went to the Sugar Bowl. Or, take Florida’s 1998 season. A 3 point loss to Tennessee at Knoxville in overtime kept a 9-2 (1 conference loss) Florida team from the SEC championship game, which UT won along with the 98’s MNC.
For Florida and Tennessee, it is not only the shot at a conference championship that is played for the second or third Saturday in September, it is a shot at the MNC. For two teams with 3 MNC’s since 1996, no year was that more evident that the present one, where Florida’s come-from-behind 1 point victory in Knoxville kept the train going that rolled all the way to Glendale on January 8th.
Throw in fans that genuinely dislike each other (I have seen more fights at UF-UT games than any other) and two teams that are always near the top of every recruiting ranking, and you have the making of a rivalry that shows no signs of diminishing.
Next: Florida vs. LSU
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
First in a series