Tennessee favored at 'Checker' Neyland, but history favors Florida Gators | David Whitley
The latest polling predicts an orange wave this weekend in Knoxville. It’s easy to see why.
Tennessee is scoring more points than the Golden State Warriors. Florida’s next touchdown pass will be its first in 10 months.
The No. 12 Volunteers are double-digit favorites. That hasn’t happened since Steve Spurrier was gigging opponents at Science Hill High in Johnson City.
Tennessee fans are salivating. Not just at the thought of beating No. 22 Florida but at the notion that Saturday’s game will turn a historical page.
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UF’s streak of 16 wins in 17 games will be rendered moot. The Vols will exorcise the ghosts of Spurrier, Jabar Gaffney and Jeremy Pruitt. With ESPN’s "College GameDay" in town, the game will turn into a glorious, checkerboarded pronouncement that the Josh Heupel Era has arrived.
I tell ya, the Gators have the Vols right where they want them.
Believe it or not, fortune favors Florida
That sounds delusional, but I consider it part of my job to console and to encourage Gator fans in times of need. As such, UF has two main reasons for optimism.
Vols QB Hendon Hooker might get swallowed by a sinkhole Friday night. Or the football gods will again show up in orange and blue.
Strange things have happened in this rivalry. And they usually happen in the Gators’ favor.
Don’t take my word for it. Take it from the man who has the power to influence 100,000 Volunteer fans.
“I hate this game,” Spencer Barnett said.
He’s the guy who came up with the idea for Checker Neyland. Sections of Neyland Stadium are filled with fans wearing white or orange shirts to form a giant oval checkerboard.
Barnett was inspired in 2014 watching the Vols lose at Oklahoma, where fans formed stripes in the stadium.
Barnett’s a graphic artist in Cleveland, Tennessee, and he concocted a picture of what Neyland Stadium would look like if everybody dressed in orange or white and sat in the appropriate pattern. He posted the picture on Twitter and thought nothing more of it.
“The thing went viral,” Barnett said.
A checkered past at Neyland Stadium
A couple of days later, a UT fan named Tim McLeod called and asked to set up a website where fans could log in their ticket information and find out what color shirt to wear.
Two weeks later when Florida came to town, it was impossible to find a white shirt for sale in Knoxville. Barnett shopped around for three hours.
“I had to wear a women’s long-sleeve undershirt,” he said.
It was worth it when he saw his vision come to life. Tennessee lost, of course. But a grand new tradition was born.
There have been five Checker Neyland games. The Vols are 1-4, largely because they’ve gone checkered against such teams as Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Note to UF fans: Don’t read the next paragraph.
The lone Checker Neyland win for the team was in 2016. Tennessee beat the Gators 38-28.
Note to UF fans: Resume reading here.
Barnett knows what it’s like to suffer for the team you love. He attended Tennessee during the Peyton Manning years. The 0-4 Manning vs. Florida years.
“It always seemed like half the game was played in the sun and half was played in the rain,” Barnett said. “When it was raining, y’all played great.”
It was hard to tell the rain from UT’s tears over the years.
Remember the end of the game in 2000? Jabar Gaffney held on to the winning TD pass for about 0.2 seconds.
“Oh boy,” Verne Lundquist bellowed on CBS, “is that going to be controversial!”
Remember the Gators rallying from the dead in 2002 and 2014? Remember Will Grier’s 63-yard TD pass to Antonio Callaway on 4th-and-14 in 2015?
Remember Feleipe Franks’ 63-yard Hail Mary to Tyrie Cleveland on the last play in 2017?
If bookies did, they’d realize the Vols might be cursed and knock the 10½-point spread down a few notches.
They’d also factor in that Saturday has been designated a Checker Neyland game. About 100,000 people will show up in women’s long-sleeved undershirts to see whether Tennessee can cleanse its football soul.
Barnett won’t be one of them. He’s not fatalistic, but the father of the Checker Neyland would just as soon watch it from home.
Well, maybe he’s a tad fatalistic.
“I don’t want to be disappointed at the end,” he said. “Every time we think we’re about there, something comes along and shoots our foot right off.”
Could it be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
It’s a straw worth grasping, Gator fans. When Tennessee and Florida meet, it always seems to rain on the Volunteers’ parade.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.