Time to reassess Florida's rivalries


Florida head coach Will Muschamp celebrates his team's 37-20 win over Tennessee on Sept. 15, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 9:48 p.m.

There was a time when this week would be filled with barbs and insults and fans on both sides would feel the butterflies hatching in their stomachs. There was a time when arguments would get loud over which school has a better color of orange. There was a time when Tennessee week meant the real start of college football season in Gainesville.

There was a time when ESPN's GameDay crew would make reservations for this one in the summer. (Instead, the boys are headed to North Dakota).

This is not your father's Florida-Tennessee. Far from it.

One of the great rivalries in sports has been reduced to just another game in the SEC. It's not just because Florida has won eight straight. Heck, Steve Spurrier once won five in a row against the Vols and that only intensified the rivalry.

It's still a big game.

Because it's the next one.

And because it's the first SEC game.

But even that won't be the case next year. The SEC scheduling gurus have taken another step to cripple this rivalry by making it the third SEC game for Florida next year and moved it to October.

Florida-Tennessee in October? Is nothing sacred?

You might have heard an outcry 10 years ago if that had happened. But these days, it's barely a murmur.

Florida-Tennessee just isn't what it used to be. Most of it is Tennessee's fault. The Vols last won the SEC East in 2007. Since then, they have won 12 SEC games. Since then, they have lost 22 straight games to top-20 teams.

That's why you haven't heard a lot of smack talk this week.

There was a time …

When Florida players called out Peyton Manning for his “happy feet.”

When Tennessee stormed the field and took down the fences.

When James Bates wondered if the Vol fans who left the game early were home watching “The Jeff Foxworthy Show.”

When Phil Fulmer got the monkey off his back and his smile went from end zone to end zone.

When you couldn't spell Citrus without UT.

When Tennessee's Hail Mary was another example of Ron Zook's bad luck.

When “Faxgate” was a big deal.

When Steve Spurrier used to chide Fulmer about his weight. (This week, Spurrier said, “It hasn't been quite as big a game.”)

There was a time, but that time has passed, at least for now. The game that used to be filled with pregame and postgame jabs has been reduced to this — the most controversial comment of the week was from a TV talking head who said Saturday that Butch Jones was probably looking forward to Florida's offense after facing the Quack Attack.

Sigh.

Florida fans used to have binders full of Fulmer jokes and still despise Lane Kiffin even though he only coached in Knoxville for one season. A half-dozen times this season I have had a Gator fan refer to Tennessee's current coach as “Butch Davis.”

Double sigh.

Tennessee returned 3,500 of its allotment of 8,000 tickets for the game and did so this summer.

Triple sigh.

I would say the Tennessee game right now is to Florida rivalries what the PGA Championship is to majors. Except that would be an insult to the PGA Championship.

Maybe Florida needs to reassess the games it counts as its biggest rivalries. It's not like they are written in stone. Except, of course, Florida State and Georgia.

Those rivalry games have history. Florida and Tennessee were kind of shoved together like it was a blind date. Before the league expanded to 12 teams, the two programs met only 21 times and only six from 1972-1991.

But they thrived in the 1990s and became two of the nation's elite programs who played the biggest game of the early part of the season for so many years.

Things have changed.

(For one thing, Florida went from a coach who treated rivalry games as life and death to a coach who tries to make all games feel equal.)

I really think South Carolina is a bigger rival than Tennessee for Florida right now. The Gamecocks are a much bigger threat to win the East than Tennessee, and they're coached by a guy who is on the Gator Ring of Honor! Talk about a rivalry.

In fact, I think LSU may be a bigger rival because the two schools have more history and play every year and there is no love lost between the two fan bases.

None of this means that Saturday's game isn't important. It's big for both teams, especially a Tennessee team that was routed by Oregon last week. It's an SEC game. It's Rocky Top. It's orange sherbert and white and the ghosts of the past.

Listen to me, trying to convince you that this is a big game.

It's Florida-Tennessee week. Even if it doesn't feel like it.

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

Book signing

Gainesville Sun sports columnist Pat Dooley will be signing copies of his new book “100 Things Florida Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” from 5 to 7 p.m. today at Beef O'Brady's on Archer Road.

He will be signing copies of the book on Saturday at the University of Florida Bookstore, 1900 Museum Road, from noon to 2 p.m.

The book is Dooley's third on Florida Gators football and is published by Triumph Books.

Dooley will have copies available today at Beef O'Brady's, which is located at 6500 Archer Road, west of I-75.

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