Friday, September 19, 2008

Florida -Tennessee: The Rivalry

This is a piece I wrote in early 2007, and seems appropriate for re-publishing now. This has been an incredibly busy 2 weeks for me (new baby, and I work in the stock market - enough said), but I thought this as true now as when I wrote it.

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). (Update - It held true again last year, as the Vols won the SEC East. So that now makes 13 of 16 overall with Florida or Tennessee the SEC East representative. You've got some catching up to do Georgia.)

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. (Update - Fulmer got his 10 wins last year, just barely, at 10-4 overall. Over the past 12 years Florida and Tennessee remain the most winning programs in the SEC, with Florida at 115-37 and Tennessee at 114-38. Georgia is 112-38, and LSU 108-42).

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”

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). (Update - Here's guessing that last year's 59-20 drubbing at The Swamp did nothing to endear us to Vol fans).

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.


Anonymous said...

Are you guys ever going to write one for Georgia? (considering it's over a year and a half later now, I'm kind of doubting it.)

I mean arguably your two biggest rivals, FSU and UGA don't have a "rivalry page" written up, which seems kind of strange.

Great blog, though.

- a UGA fan

Henry Louis Gomez said...

I know Mergz began writing one for UGA and never finished it. From my perspective you can check out this piece I wrote:

Click here