No one fighting to keep Tennessee football vs. Florida rivalry. Maybe that's OK | Toppmeyer
In the absence of both, will anyone fight to keep the series going on annual basis?
Doesn’t seem that way.
The SEC plans to eliminate divisions once Oklahoma and Texas join the conference by 2025. Doing so would mean some SEC teams that play annually in the conference’s current format will dial back to playing every other year in a revised, no-division alignment.
The SEC has not decided on a future alignment or schedule but is focusing on two formats.
One option: Three annual SEC rivals, plus six rotating foes
Another option: One annual SEC rival, plus seven rotating foes
In the second scenario, Florida and Georgia likely would be designated rivals, with Tennessee and Vanderbilt paired.
But even in the former scenario, I’m unconvinced the Florida-Tennessee rivalry is worth continuing annually. And from the sound of it, UF and UT would be fine dialing back to playing once every two years.
Other rivalries take priority for each school.
“Georgia, obviously, would be one that’s important to us, given the game (location) in Jacksonville and the history there. Other than that, I really don’t have a preference,” Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin said Wednesday, when I asked him which SEC rivalries UF would most want to continue on annual basis.
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Vols coach Josh Heupel pointed to Vanderbilt and Alabama as rivals to prioritize.
“We’ve got a bunch of really good, historic games that our fans have been really passionate about,” Heupel said when I asked about UT’s preferred rivals. “You want to play in those big games. Obviously, there are some that have been historic for a long time – inside of our own state, and with Alabama.”
Since the departures of Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer from the sidelines, this rivalry has gone from “Pandemonium Reigns!” to Boredom Rules. The Gators have won 16 of the past 17 meetings.
In the absence of heated competition, a rivalry needs geography or history to fall back on. Tennessee-Alabama and Tennessee-Vanderbilt have both. Gators-Vols has neither.
The series became one of college football’s best matchups throughout the 1990s, aided by the SEC’s split into divisions.
Florida and Tennessee were the SEC East’s preeminent programs throughout the first decade of division play. Their September matchups became a barometer to which team would win the East. The two programs accounted for every East title from 1992-2001.
The rivalry is somewhat lost on college students now, but Tennessee fans in their 30s or 40s grew up on it. Many older fans hold the Third Saturday in October dearer to the heart, because they’ve been around long enough to remember a time when the Vols enjoyed success against the Tide and appreciate the game’s tradition.
Even in the rivalry’s heyday, though, Florida State outranked the Vols as Florida’s top rival. It’s tough to trump an instate rival, especially when UF and FSU spent the ‘90s as top-10 programs that clashed in the regular-season finale.
Spurrier starred as an athlete at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee, before he won a Heisman Trophy with the Gators. Spurrier grew up attending Vols games, and he remembers getting “chill bumps” the first time he coached at Neyland Stadium as Duke's offensive coordinator.
Spurrier accelerated the UF-UT rivalry heat with his jabs at the Vols and their legendary coach. Spurrier and Fulmer were Yin and Yang. Comedian vs. statesman, with Spurrier enjoying a 7-3 advantage in their matchups.
Don’t expect Heupel or Florida’s Billy Napier to rekindle this series with zingers. Both coaches are understated.
Program trends suggest this rivalry might soon become competitive again. The Vols appear on the way up after a seven-win season, while Florida is in rebuilding mode entering its first season under Napier.
I recently asked Spurrier what he thought about the possibility of UF-UT going from an annual game to one that’s played every other year.
He answered by saying he always considered Georgia and Auburn to be Florida’s top SEC rivals.
I didn’t interpret that as a slight toward Tennessee.
Rather, it pointed toward how rivalries with tradition and a geography are best positioned to stand the test of time, and how perhaps it’s time to let Florida-Tennessee slip from a rivalry into a reunion that convenes in alternate years.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.