Dec 3, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; A general view of the SEC logo at mid-field after the 2011 SEC championship game between the LSU Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The Alabama Crimson Tide will play the loser in this year’s Tennessee Volunteers vs Florida Gators game in the SEC Championship, and that rarely happens.
When the Vols beat the Gators 38-28 back in September, Tennessee fans weren’t just excited about ending the 11-game losing streak. The win seemed to put them in great shape to go to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.
Sadly, after four conference losses, two of which were embarrassing upsets, a 5-0 start for Tennessee turned into an 8-4 finish. And they were two games behind the Gators in the SEC East.
That makes 2016 a rare year in the SEC, a year where the loser of the Tennessee-Florida game wins the East.
Dec 3, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; A detailed view of an SEC logo on a yard marker during the first half of the 2011 SEC championship game between the LSU Tigers and the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
2007 Tennessee-Florida Score
Florida: 59 Tennessee: 20
2007 SEC East Winner: Tennessee
This was the most recent time the Vols actually won the East, ironically, in Phillip Fulmer’s second to last year. It was Erik Ainge’s senior season, and things started off terribly.
The Vols lost their opener to the Cal Golden Bears, and two weeks later, they were smoked by the Florida Gators in Tim Tebow’s first SEC start, 59-20. At 1-2 and unranked, all hope seemed lost, and the chorus to fire Fulmer was louder than ever.
But after Tennessee defeated the Arkansas State Red Wolves to get to 2-2, they walked into a bye week. That bye week changed everything.
The Auburn Tigers stunned Florida in The Swamp. And all of a sudden, with just one SEC loss, the Vols had life.
The next week Tennessee destroyed the Georgia Bulldogs, 35-14. And later that night, Florida lost on the road to the LSU Tigers, putting the Vols in control of their own destiny to win the division.
But two weeks later, Tennessee blew it with a 41-17 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Thankfully for the Vols, Florida collapsed the next week with a loss to the Georgia Bulldogs.
And down the stretched, thanks to three games where a missed field goal was the difference, the Vols survived to finish 6-2 in the conference. Here is what their division ended up looking like.
Final SEC East Standings
Tennessee: 9-3, 6-2
Georgia: 10-2, 6-2
Florida: 9-3, 5-3
South Carolina: 6-6, 3-5
Kentucky: 7-5, 3-5
Vanderbilt: 5-7, 2-6
Tennessee benefitted from a very weak SEC West schedule that year, something Florida did not enjoy. But they backed into the SEC Championship game as a result.
And they almost had a huge win in the title game against the LSU Tigers. But two late turnovers by Ainge cost them that title, and they lost the game 21-14. LSU went onto win the national title that year, and the Vols sunk into a period of oblivion the year after.
But despite losing to Florida 59-20 in embarrassing fashion, they somehow managed to win the East this year.
Dec 5, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; General view of construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium behind the Georgia Dome prior to the 2015 SEC Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
1997 Tennessee-Florida Score
Florida: 33 Tennessee: 20
1997 SEC East Winner: Tennessee
Just 10 years before the Vols backed into the SEC Championship game against the LSU Tigers, they enjoyed one of their greatest seasons in school history after losing to the Florida Gators.
During this time, Florida was always their biggest and only obstacle. In 1995 and 1996, the Gators were their only SEC loss. Going into 1997, Peyton Manning had decided to stay for his senior season, and with the Gators replacing Danny Wuerffel at quarterback, this was supposed to be Tennessee’s year.
But Florida, which was enjoying a 19-game winning streak in the conference, 22 if you count the championship games, and had not lost in the SEC nor The Swmap since 1994, continued its dominance over Tennessee with a 33-20 win. And this was on the heels of Steve Spurrier making a few infamous quotes in the offseason about Tennessee being unable to win the East.
It looked like Manning’s career would end without a title as a result, but the football Gods smiled on his team this year. He made sure they wouldn’t quit and had them focused in dominating victories over the Ole Miss Rebels and Georgia Bulldogs behind a new rushing attack in Jamal Lewis.
Florida, breaking in a new quarterback, suffered a shocking loss to the LSU Tigers the day the Vols pounded Georgia. All of a sudden, they were in the race again.
After beating the Alabama Crimson Tide and South Carolina Gamecocks, the Dawgs delivered the Vols the best gift with a dominating victory over the Gators.
Tennessee was heading into November first in the East at that point, and Manning played his best football against the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Kentucky Wildcats, with the national championship and Heisman Trophy in sight.
The Vols finished with a close win over the Vanderbilt Commodores to win the East and finally make it to Atlanta. These were the final standings.
Final SEC East Standings
Tennessee: 10-1, 7-1
Georgia: 9-2, 6-2
Florida: 9-2, 6-2
South Carolina: 5-6, 3-5
Kentucky: 5-6, 2-6
Vanderbilt: 3-8, 0-8
Tennessee finally got over the hump with Manning and won the East for the first time since the divisions split. Then they went on to face the Auburn Tigers for the SEC Championship.
That game made it seem even more like the Vols were cursed in big moments. After losing to Florida but being handed the East, they spotted an inferior Tigers team six turnovers and had an extra point blocked and returned for two points.
But amidst all that, Manning came through with the finest performance of his college career, throwing for over 300 yards and four touchdowns, and delivering the Vols a 30-29 victory.
Tennessee lost to Florida for the fifth straight year, but they still managed to win the SEC Championship in one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
Dec 5, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Southeastern Conference trophy is seen during a press conference with Missouri Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban at the Georgia Dome. Missouri plays Alabama in the SEC Championship Saturday. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
1992 Tennessee-Florida Score
Tennessee: 31 Florida: 14
1992 SEC East Winner: Florida
Now this one could not be any more familiar for the Vols considering what just happened. There was even a coaching debacle at the time, albeit a different one.
With longtime head coach Johnny Majors out the first three games due to recovery from open-heart surgery, Phillip Fulmer stepped in as interim head coach. He won the first three games for the Vols, including two huge victories over the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators.
Then Majors came back, and the Vols still beat the Cincinnati Bearcats and LSU Tigers to move to 5-0. Sound familiar to this year? It was almost exactly the same.
The Vols had made it to 5-0 with wins over Georgia and Florida both times and in complete control of the SEC East. But then, in 1992, they lost back to back games to SEC West teams, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide.
That’s just like this year, when they lost back to back SEC West games to the Texas A&M Aggies…and the Tide.
It was worse in 1992 since Arkansas was a really atrocious team.
But still, just like this year, Vols fans weren’t worried. They still just needed to win out to win the East. And both times, in 1992 and this year, rather than win out, they lost a third straight game on the road to the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Both times, the loss to South Carolina handed the Florida Gators the SEC East.
While calls to fire Butch Jones have roared since that loss this year, Majors actually was fired in 1992.
Tennessee at least won out in 1992, though, unlike the Vols this year, who lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores in the end.
Here were the final SEC East standings.
Final SEC East Standings
Florida: 8-3, 6-2
Georgia: 9-2, 6-2
Tennessee: 8-3, 5-3
South Carolina: 5-6, 3-5
Kentucky: 4-7, 2-6
Vanderbilt: 4-7, 2-6
In this situation, Florida went onto face the Alabama Crimson Tide for the SEC Championship. Want to know something eerie that makes 1992 similar to this year as well? Alabama was undefeated both times, and Florida is 8-3 both times coming off of a loss to the Florida State Seminoles.
Dec 5, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; General view of an SEC pylon prior to the 2015 SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Other Notable SEC East Exceptions
The truth of the Tennessee-Florida series is that the winner wins the East a majority of the time. In the 25-year history of the SEC Championship game, the winner of that game has represented the East 13 times.
That’s more than half.
And the SEC has had plenty of years to make it up since it did not happen at all between 2010 and 2014.
When you add the other four times we’ve mentioned, it’s either been Tennessee or Florida playing for the SEC Championship 17 of the 25 times since the divisional split.
Here are the only times where neither team played for the title.
Tennessee got hit with the injury bug and fell to 8-4 on the year and 5-3 in the SEC. Florida brought in a new coach in Ron Zook and also finished 8-4 but 6-2 in the SEC. The Gators beat the Vols and the Georgia Bulldogs that year, but Georgia finished 11-1 and 7-1 in the SEC, so they became the first team to win the East that wasn’t Tennessee or Florida. They dominated Arkansas 30-3 to win the SEC Championship.
This year the Vols beat the Gators 24-10, the Gators beat the Bulldogs 16-13, and the Bulldogs beat the Vols 41-14. So it was a round-robin, and to make matters worse, they all had an SEC West loss. Florida once again finished 8-4, though, while Georgia and Tennessee finished 10-2. The tiebreaker was the highest ranked team in the BCS, and that went to Georgia. They lost to the eventual national champion LSU Tigers in the title game.
Just like 2002, Tennessee was a massive disappointment, only this time it was magnified, as they started the year No. 3 in the country and fell to 5-6 and 3-5 in the SEC. Meanwhile, also like 2002, Florida had a new head coach and beat the Vols and the Bulldogs. But they suffered losses to LSU along with the Alabama Crimson Tide and South Carolina Gamecocks. So Georgia won the East at 9-2 and dominated LSU to win their second SEC Championship in four years.
Florida and Tennessee both suffered rebuilding phases during this time. Urban Meyer was unable to replace Tim Tebow in his final year with the Gators in 2010 and fell to 7-5 and 4-4 in the SEC, which is why he bailed. Then they suffered through four years of Will Muschamp. Tennessee had three terrible years of Derek Dooley as the program sunk into oblivion. That cleared the path for South Carolina, who won it in 2010, Georgia, who won the East in 2011 and 2012, and Missouri, who won the East in 2013 and 2014. With one exception, the Gators going 11-1 and 7-1 in the SEC in 2012, those three teams were the class of the East from 2012 to 2014.