Rivalry that was, hopes to be again

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Florida vs. Tennessee, 2017, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.The Gators beat the Volunteers 26-20. [Cyndi Chambers/ Gainesville Sun/Correspondent] 2017

There is nothing like Tennessee week. The trash-talking, the Heisman Trophy implications, the leg up in the SEC East, the poll ramifications. The hype is so loud you can barely hear yourself think.

Oh, wait.

I had a ’90s flashback.

Back to reality where I have to wonder if it even is still a rivalry game. Florida has won 12-of-13. This is not about the SEC East anymore. The only mentions of the Heisman will be in Heisman House commercials during the game.

It’s kind of sad in a way that this game that once felt like the end of the world now feels like just another game in the SEC.

“You’re prime time, ESPN. It’s a big game,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.

Yeah, I can’t explain ESPN’s logic, but know that on ESPN2 Mississippi State and Kentucky will be playing and that’s actually a much bigger game, which is all you really need to know.

It’s as if Florida vs. Tennessee is the equivalent of the Giants vs. the Cowboys. They may not be much and there are better games but we’re putting the G-Men and the ’Pokes in the Sunday night prime time window because who they are, not what they are.

ESPN will have all kinds of highlights and graphics about when this game meant something.

“Growing up, I always loved to watch (this game),” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of passion in both fan bases, a lot of tradition, so I’m thankful to have a chance to be a part of it.”

Growing up, Jeremy, this game was epic. The pre-game chatter would wear you out.

Now, it’s two coaches trying to rebuild from the rubble, two unranked teams not even getting votes among the others, two teams that COMBINED to win eight games last year.

Please, hold back your excitement.

“The Florida-Tennessee rivalry game does bring some tension between the two teams,” said senior receiver Josh Hammond.

Yes, because there were those last two wins in Gainesville for the Gators and that second-half beatdown in Knoxville the last time Florida was there.

So, we get that the players are still going to feel like this is a big rivalry game and certainly the two head coaches will talk it up.

“It means a lot,” Hammond said, “for both of those head coaches to start 1-0.”

OK, so we have that. It matters to both programs a lot. Outside of those buildings, meh, not so much.

Maybe this rivalry has slipped so much we need a trophy for the winner, maybe a moonshine jug filled with margaritas. Or maybe just a participation ribbon.

Because this thing lost its luster in a hurry. The East feels like a battle for second. The winner gets a leg up all right, a leg up on the Belk Bowl.

College football can be cruelly cyclical. In both cases, Florida and Tennessee pretty much did this to themselves.

Bad hires can tear a program down so gradually you wake up one morning and it’s on the corner with a shopping cart, a scroungy dog and a cardboard sign.

We all know about Florida’s problems the last eight years. The Gators have been able to take solace in the fact that at least they haven’t been Tennessee.

Since the end of the 2007 season — the penultimate one for Phil Fulmer — Tennessee is at even .500 overall (thanks to Jeremy Pruitt’s 2-1 record this year). During that stretch it has had one winning record in SEC play. ONE! The Vols have lost at least seven games in a season six times in the last 10 seasons.

Tennessee and Florida have one thing in common — coaching instability since the glory days of Steve Spurrier vs. Fulmer. And the Vols just went through a coaching search that should be a sitcom this fall.

(Florida had its own TV series that was much more serious with death threats, hurricanes, dead fish and suspensions.)

That’s how these teams got to this point where the most impressive win after three weeks is, well, there really isn’t one.

Saturday night may feel like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron playing Home Run Derby. Today.

It still will be one of the great settings in sports (prepare for a feature on the Vol Navy during the broadcast and some mention of Calhoun’s), still be a bunch of Tennessee fans who hate the Gators and vice versa, still be one team celebrating when it’s over.

It’s still Florida-Tennessee, even if it’s a watered-down version.

And one day it could be back to what it once was.

Sigh.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

32 COMMENTS

  1. It’s big for our team in terms of where they are and how they will deal with national TV and being on the road. Winning this game looks much better for either coach in terms of the narrative regarding their rebuilding efforts, though in the long term it doesn’t mean that much.

    The article is correct in that the game doesn’t have any national title of even SEC title implications, so it comes down to not much more than a game against some kids from a nearby town you just want to win rather than need to win. Tennessee’s situation is more dire. They thrived when Bama was down because they recruit a lot of the same areas but now Bama is getting all the top talent and leaving the Vols with the scraps. Florida is in a more talent-rich area and doesn’t have to go out of state to fill its roster(thigh we do).

    As long as Bama is up, I think the Volies will struggle.

    • I think Georgia being up has hurt the Vols more than Bama. Before Mark Richt, the Vols would usually sign at least 3 of the top 10 players in Georgia. After Richt, we would get Georgia players ranked lower, and with Smart not, it’s even harder to get top Georgia players (and Georgia has signed a couple of top players from Tennessee). Clemson and South Carolina improving also hurt. In the 90’s, we would usually sign at least 2 of the top players in South Carolina. The only real plus for he Vols is that Tennessee produces more blue chippers than we did 20 years ago. We still have to get them to come to Tennessee, though.

  2. For those that follow the outstanding expert on risk. Nissam taleb, there is a concept he advances called the lindy effect, which states that things that have lasted have a much better shot of lasting than newer things. Classic case being China’s great Wall vs the Berlin Wall…by that logic ESPN is right…msu vs Kentucky is a nice game but over time FLA Tennessee is a better bet. We will recover from champ and Tennessee will recover from the clueless athletic director that wanted lane kiffen instead of Fulmer.

    • I think the trajectory for Tenn was going down regardless of who was in the seat. Kiffin actually had a decent start but his leaving after a year for USC, and to your point, was disastrous for the program. Tennessee’s home talent is decent but they don’t have the numbers and always relied on Metro Atlanta, North and South Carolina, with sprinklings of neighboring Southern states (and even Ohio…see Peerless Price) to fill their roster. With South Carolina and of course Clemson…many of those guys are/were going elsewhere. I think it will be very hard for them to regain that footing especially with UGA now being who they are.

      • i agree with lot of the comment but not the UGA part. Obviously fulmer had eaten one too many times at Denny’s, but he did bring some fun with him in his own way and was a great coach. Kiffen was neither (i still like their grand slam breakfasts myself). the rivalry really was spurrier’s rivalry in a way, since he had grown up there, but no one had better comments than the ole ball coach and UT brought out his and the teams best stuff. i am a cdm fan but he just doesn’t have the chops as a smartass to add some extra fun to things!

  3. So what? The past is past. what’s done is done. (And Rog still claims to be Captain Obvious? I’m comin’ on, buddy).

    Seriously, it would be nice if this game still had national interest, and even implications…..but it doesn’t right now and there’s no use crying in our smoothies about it. For us, and them, it’s still Florida-Tennessee, it’s a rivalry both sides look forward to for 12 months every year, it still fills both stadiums, it still means something to each side, it still brings out the best (and worst) of each side, and it’s still an SEC game which ought to mean something of and by itself. Want a cool story line? There’s still plenty of them, just not the ones we were exactly hoping for, but both teams are still battling back for redemption and previous glory anyway.

    But why do we need a story line anyway? This is Florida-Tennessee for God’s sake! Go Gators! I’m pumped.

  4. Both of these teams are much worse than in the glory years. I still want to beat the Voles, every year. I actually live in TN and I used to love just holding up one hand when annoyed by Vole fans. That meant five straight victories. I would like to have a time in the future when you would need your feet to count the victories. Not happening yet, but perhaps in the future.

    • At times it occurs to me that we may have an entire brigade or two of Gators living in Tennessee. If you guys timed it right, coordinated every thing, we might actually be able to take over Neyland stadium for at least an hour or more before the Knoxville SWAT team arrives. To quote a former head coach who’s name shall not be mentioned, “How cool would that be?”.

  5. I have to agree with Peter Burns, Vols need this win more than the Gators do. Even if the Vols lose all their remaining games, a victory over the Gators gives them something to cling to. Same thing holds true for the Gators. Mullen has got to beat FSU this year, even if we don’t make a bowl, beating FSU at least quiets the critics during the off season and will allow Mrs Mullen to show her face in Publix.

  6. UF suffered poor coaching hires following the vacuum created by the cowardly scurry-out-of-town orchestrated by renowned “family man”, Urb. Tennessee straight up did themselves. They angered the Football Gods by throwing over devoted, Vol Lifer and NC winning coach Phillip “Doughboy” Fulmer. This never goes well (Fla. St. dissing Bobby is the only exception I can think of). Ohio St. (Earl Bruce), Texas (Fred Akers) are prominent examples of the wrath of the Football Gods (Karma). That wrath can last for years or decades. Tenn. is still wandering in the wilderness. Re-hiring Doughboy is a 1st step toward redemption. The part where the Gators have been on an 8 year “field trip” themselves is unfortunate. But I will proclaim the Gators sinless of tempting Karma. I am much more hopeful of the Gators return to prominence than I am for the Vols. But this is STILL a big game! Go Gators!

    • Mark, I have to disagree on the point of the Gators being sinless, in fact I believe that our own trek through the wilderness was a results of exactly what you pointed out above. When the HBC left the Washington Redskins after the 2003 season and we had ended year 2 of the Zooker experiment (whom will always hold a special place in my heart for the spoiling of the dedication of ” Ron Zook Field, err Bobby Bowden Field ” ) it was clear that Coach knew he had messed up and wanted to come back home and restore us to our rightful place at the top of the SEC. However instead of embracing our ” prodigal Son ” and kissing his little finger as they should have, the powers that be whom were still pouting and had their feelings hurt by his departure and public chastisement of them in the process with the ” I guess 10 wins isn’t good enough around here any more ” comment, were too proud to bring him back against the wishes of the vast majority of the fan base at the time and chose instead to endure another year of zookism before the hiring of Urban Liar. The rest is history and we are still dealing with the legacy that the Urb left behind and the downward spiral that he started. Even though he did bring us the 2 natty’s, the entitlement mentality in the locker room and win at all cost philosophy are the things that CDM is still trying to purge out to this day… At least that is how this old Gator sees it anyway..

        • BC i agree with a lot of your comment, and in doing so have to acknowledge that my beating on champ is a bit of an oversimplification as to what went wrong with the program. the ole ball coach could win with guys that stayed out of trouble, but some of our other coaches seemed to think they needed a few bad boys to win, and champ actually needed bad boys to win. FSU and Miami had this issue too. but you just cant put urban’s hiring on anyone except the University president. urban was his guy totally. no one else even had a chance, even the ole ball coach. urban had come through in a big way for that president when they both were at Utah, just one of those things.

      • BCGator We’ll have to agree to disagree on how much the Gators “asked for it” by dissing Steve Spurrier. There is a tremendous difference between squeezing an iconic, legendary, WINNING coach out the side door versus not taking your “ex” back after a (not ugly) breakup. If SS had returned, Gator Nation would have been ecstatic. I remember at the time thinking UF had no shot at Urb (ND, dontcha know). And I was wallowing in misery, dreading another Kozo the Clown (Ron Zook) desperation hire by Jeremy Foley. Mveal2006 has the right of it. Urb was entirely a Bernie Machen hire. JF would have loved to get Gator Nation off his neck by bringing back the HBC. Easiest day at the job EVER for him. But I was happy with Urb even though he was a cold fish. He DID deliver the goods in the form of SEC and National Championships. That’s as much as I hope for from a coach. I clearly remember the frustration when UF had NEVER won either (thanks again to SS for fixing that). And I have great confidence in Dan Mullen. Better days and better Gator teams are ahead. Go Gators!

  7. Fuller was Tennessee. I read somewhere it was boosters that wanted him out for losing to us and UGA. Don’t know that for fact. Sad to see a team like his become what it has. Why because we beat them and them being good made us look better Bearing a good team. Unfortunately what has become of us makes this game important only to the the winner in a ‘w’ and a sign that team is on its way back. During the Manning era we err supposed to lose. We didn’t. And we were highly regarded as one of the best in the country. But the let there is were. If we want to be more than’were’ we have to play well. Started with getting there right coach. All things considered both programs are a mess. I think there me it’s deeper and will take longer to dig out. Both teams have pride in the line. UT has home field advantage. Even then we win by 15.

    • Peyton famously beat every team he played against at least once. Except the Gators. O-4 v. Danny Wuerffel. Peyton still passed the eye test. Probably the best I’ve seen at the collegiate level. But Danny was a better fit in a better offense with better teammates and better coach. Ironically, Tenn. also once had, my opinion, the best/most dominant defensive player at the collegiate level – Reggie White. And Reggie’s Tenn. teams used to lose 3, 4, 5 games every year. Go figure.

  8. “Because this thing lost its luster in a hurry. The East feels like a battle for second. The winner gets a leg up all right, a leg up on the Belk Bowl.”

    This game didn’t lose its luster in a hurry. The luster has been gradually wearing off for more than a decade. But who cares? Beat Tennessee!

  9. I’m originally from Tennessee. Grew up 50 miles South of Knoxville. My little league team colors were UT colors, my high school team would sing Rocky Top after wins in the locker room (while I sang Rocky Flop and Gator chomped). My entire TN family bleeds Orange and White. This is THE game for me every single year. The Gators could lose every other game as long as they win this one = Winning Season. I don’t want good close games, I want 70-0. Let’s Go Gators!!!

  10. …tear a program down..” -Dooley.
    Pat, implying that when life ”tears at you,” you end ”up unshaven, with a shopping cart and a ratty dog,” is kinda’… oh, what are the words? I know, ”worn out” and untrue stereotypes. ”Come on man,” that’s the best you can to do to ”illustrate” a ”worn out” storyline!?!?

  11. Dooley. It’s great to be a Gator through all kinds of weather. And winning the SEC East two of the last three years ain’t ancient history. On paper we may not look like this year’s or last year’s DAWGS, but crazy unpredictable things can happen on the gridiron. One SEC loss does not the season make. This game is still a big deal. Go Gators!

    • Amen Billy Fink. Amen. I can remember driving to Kentucky about 10 years ago. I picked up a newspaper in Knoxville while passing thru. The Gators/Vols game was about 3 weeks out. I don’t remember who the Vols were playing that week. But there was (1) article about that week’s opponent and (3) about the Gators. Talk about living rent-free in your rival’s heart and mind. I thought it was hilarious. This will ALWAYS be a big game. And I am excited. I am chilling a special beer to enjoy while watching the Gators rip the hearts out of 100k dumb-ass, bare foot, in-bred hillbillies.

  12. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not Pat this article is nothing but a complete indictment of Jeremy Foley. He could the number one program in the Nation and drove it in the ground so that we could worship at the alter of Title IX. This is what You would call a LOAD OF CRAP. Facilities, Coaching Hires and then recruiting are simply not really competitive. If it were not for the population numbers in Florida this game would have a very low TV placement. The demographics of the State of Florida is what lets administrators skate on this, destroying Brand Equity and cheating Fans and Alumnae of respectable teams. You guys need to take a step back with the UAA and really report how they have mucked this up. A few more insights into what DM and SS are up to would be appropriate. They want our money, we want better product.

  13. Yes, last season’s Gator meltdown disaster is in the rear-view mirror. Here’s my firm belief – the Gators will climb back into a winning season (hoping for at least 8 wins – after UK, this might be tough, except this team is continually improving). UT has a good coach – I like Pruitt. UT is on the uphill climb too. Let’s show respect for the Gators, and for the Vols. May the better team win – my heart tells me this is the Gators, but the team who wants it the most will probably win. GO GATORS!!!

  14. Tennessee Week is always important to Gators. Even if not important on the national scene, the match will draw some 107,000 or so into a storied ancient stadium. It will pack all the pageantry college football can offer. The outcome has significant implications for recruiting and shortening the distance back to competitive prominence. For each of these new head coaches and rebuilding teams the confidence gained by the winning players can carry over to other games this season.

    And you never really know how much one win can mean. Almost a year ago Ed Oregon was in about the same critical spot where Willie Taggart finds himself now. After the Homecoming loss to mighty Troy in Baton Rouge pundits were ready to count down the days until Crazy Joe Alleva owned his mistake in hiring Cajun Coach “O”. Then LSU upset Florida in the Swamp, finished the year strongly, and knocked off two Top Ten outfits this month, and the Tigers are sixth-ranked nationally. Who saw that coming a year ago?

    So has the Gators vs the Vols contest lost its national importance? Well, yes. Does this game matter? Absolutely, and to the winner maybe a bunch. It’s Tennessee… Go Gators!