UF-Tennessee has the feel of their old rivalry

UF-Tennessee has the feel of their old rivalry

Published Sep. 14, 2012 8:37 p.m. ET

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At its zenith in the 1990s, the Florida-Tennessee game meant Steve Spurrier tossing barbs, Peyton Manning throwing bombs and Sports Illustrated covers.

It was often the regular-season game of the college football season. In the first 10 years of the new SEC that added Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, either Florida or Tennessee represented the SEC East in every conference title game.

Of course, in those years the media world was a much different place. In 1995 when the No. 4-ranked Gators and No. 8-ranked Vols met at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Internet was barely on, no one had heard of a blogger, and if someone had mentioned an iPad, NASA likely would have come to mind.

But if Sports Illustrated showed up on campus for a game, everyone knew it was game-of-the-week worthy. That was not in question.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden, who covered four consecutive Gators-Vols clashes from 1995-98, was on Tennessee's campus all week leading up to the '95 game. Layden was in town working on a piece about Manning, who was in his sophomore season and already considered a Heisman candidate.

Manning was a willing subject.

"The kind of access you would never get now with an A-list player,'' Layden said this week. "I went to classes with him, the apartment he was living in with his buddies, the film sessions, I was in the locker room before the game."

Layden accumulated enough notes and quotes to write a book, so he would have no trouble writing the SI cover story the following week.

Seated in the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium press box high above the field, Layden watched as Manning threw for 216 yards and Tennessee raced to a 16-point lead in the first half. Manning was cooperating perfectly.

And then the story changed, slamming on the breaks and heading the other way. Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel not only shredded Tennessee's defense, he took over the cover of Sports Illustrated by leading the Gators to 41 consecutive points in a 62-37 win.

As Layden said, the Vols "just got pounded."

So did that cover story on Manning.

"I'm sitting in a Hilton in Gainesville trying to write a Florida story with a notebook full of Peyton Manning at midnight on that Saturday,'' he said. "It was brutal."

Gator fans loved the "Attack of the Gators" cover a few days later. This Saturday's Florida-Tennessee game might not be SI-cover worthy, but it undoubtedly has a buzz that has been lacking the last few years.

That's in part because Florida has owned the rivalry of late. Consider this tidbit: Tennessee has not defeated Florida since 2004 -- or before such staples of 2012 life like the iPhone and Twitter existed. Facebook was just a few months old at the time.

The Gators take their seven-game win streak over the Vols into Neyland Stadium on Saturday night in perhaps the most-anticipated matchup in the rivalry since the Lane Kiffin-Urban Meyer feud in 2009.

Still, that was only a brief awakening.

You have to go back to the '90s and early 2000s for a game that offered as much intrigue as this year's.

This year feels different as both programs appear on more solid ground than the past couple of seasons. Heading into the game, both teams have 2-0 records and, for the first time since 2007, both are ranked going into the matchup.

ESPN's "College GameDay" even decided to come to town, setting up shop right off Peyton Manning Pass near the stadium.

Gators coach Will Muschamp lives by the motto of "the most important game is the next game," so don't expect him to wax poetic over a rivalry that appears alive again.

Still, he can relate to the excitement that has built this week toward kickoff.

"They were two of the top 5 teams in the 90s, basically the third Saturday in September, whoever won that game had the leg up in the East,'' Muschamp said. "A lot of great players, great coaches, what Spurrier did here in the 90s has been unmatched as far as his success in a 12-year run."

UF historian Norm Carlson has been a part of the game since his days as a UF student in the 50s. There is one characteristic that makes the Florida-Tennessee rivalry unique in his mind.

"The cross-traffic is unique,'' Carlson said. "That added to the competitive nature of the series. There have been so many things in this rivalry that are unique."

Consider that former Gators coach Bob Woodruff, also Florida's athletic director at one point, later served as Tennessee's AD. While at Tennessee, Woodruff hired former Gators quarterback/defensive back Doug Dickey as head coach.

When Gators coach Ray Graves opted to retired after the 1969 season, Florida hired Dickey. The move upset Woodruff enough that he passed on an invitation from the Sugar Bowl that year and placed the Vols -- and their outgoing coach Dickey -- against Graves and the Gators in the Gator Bowl.

Florida won 14-13 in what would have been a monumental matchup if Twitter and social media existed then like now.

Florida linebacker Jon Bostic doesn't have to be reminded of the significance of the Florida-Tennessee game. Bostic hopes to finish his career undefeated against the Vols with a victory Saturday, but that doesn't mean the rivalry isn't a rivalry in his eyes.

"You never really want to lose," Bostic said. "Going into the season, it's one of the games on the schedule that's always circled. It's pretty much a statement game."

And for the first time in a while, both programs have an opportunity to make a statement on Saturday night. Tennessee, coming off back-to-back losing seasons under head coach Derek Dooley, is aware of what's at stake.

The Vols need a win like this to show they are on their way back. If the Gators win, they can take another step in the right direction after a big road win at Texas A&M last week.

"This is going to be a little new for us,'' Dooley said. "But it's good. This is where you want to be."

After covering the Gators' lopsided victory at The Swamp in '95, Layden was in Knoxville the next year.

That was the year Manning was finally going to break through against the Gators, who had played in the national title game the previous season but lost to Nebraska. Some wondered if Florida had missed its golden opportunity with Wuerffel.

Florida dominated as Wuerffel threw four touchdowns in the first 20 minutes of the game to give the Gators a 35-0 lead. They eventually won, 35-29.

Same old story. The Gators went on to win the national title and Tennessee had to take a wait-till-next-year approach once more.

"These games had this Armageddon feel to them,'' Layden said of the rivalry in the 90s. "At the time the whole series had this feeling of validating and legitimizing a team's season, right on that one day in September.

"Those games defined Steve Spurrier and Peyton Manning as college figures. And Danny Wuerffel too, but Spurrier kind of overwhelmed that program at that time. And it defined Fulmer too, although he got a national championship in '98, I'm sure it will be in the second paragraph of his obituary that he couldn't be Spurrier."

Only time will tell if Florida-Tennessee can approach the national appeal it once had. If the two programs can reignite the rivalry to a national stage
regularly, more made-for-the-digital-age fun is certainly ahead. Saturday night is a good place to start.