If you ask most Tennessee Volunteer football fans who the program’s biggest rival is, you would likely get one of two responses — Alabama or Florida. Easily one of Tennessee’s two biggest rivals, the Florida Gators have more a new school rivalry feel to them than does Alabama.
Having only played a total of 42 times, Tennessee and Florida’s series is one of the most intense and noteworthy rivalries in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators hold a 23-19 edge over the Vols, which includes 8 straight victories dating back to 2005.
When Tennessee and Florida play, it tends to have conference — and sometimes — national championship implications. Since 1992, either Florida or Tennessee has represented the SEC Eastern division 15 times, including every year from 1992-2001. Five times since 1985 both programs finished in the AP Top 10 and three times, both finished in the final AP Top 5.
Many games between Florida and Tennessee have been mired in controversy. From accusations of watering down the field to former assistants faxing playbooks, this rivalry has been full of drama and hatred.
The first ever matchup between Tennessee and Florida was played in Tampa, FL on October 28, 1916. The 24-0 victory for the Volunteers was the first of 10 consecutive wins over the Gators spanning from 1916-1953.
Knoxville Mud Hole
In 1928, both Florida and Tennessee were undefeated going into the season finale. The Vols were triumphant 13-12 in a muddy affair in Knoxville, TN. However, the main story was accusations from Florida that Tennessee had drenched the field in attempts to slow the game down. The Vols denied it, saying the mud was a result of rain the previous night.
In 1969, Tennessee and Florida met in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL. This marked the first and only time the two programs have met in a bowl game. Florida emerged victorious 14-13. Within the week after the contest, Volunteer Head Coach Doug Dickey left Knoxville to take the Florida Head Coach position. Dickey later returned to Tennessee as it’s Athletic Director in 1985, a position he would hold until he retired in 2002.
Get Your Fax Straight
Before the 1991 season, Tennessee assistant coach Jack Sells was fired for his role in recruiting violations. During Florida game week, reports had surfaced that Sells had been seen faxing Tennessee’s game plan to another former Volunteer assistant coach and then Florida Defensive Coordinator Ron Zook. An investigation found the accusations to have merit, but both Phil Fulmer and Steve Spurrier shrugged off the matter. The Gators went on to win the game in Gainesville, FL by a score of 35-18, even though their defense gave up over 400 yards to the Volunteer offense
Tearing Down the Goalposts
In 1998, after 5 consecutive losses to Steve Spurrier’s Florida squad, the Vols won in OT 20-17. Tied 17-17 at the end of regulation, Tennessee opened up OT with a Jeff Hall FG. When Florida Kicker Collins Cooper missed his attempt at the tie, Tennessee fans stormed the field in Neyland Stadium and ripped down the goalposts. The Vols would go on to finish 13-0 and win the first BCS National Championship.
Gaffney’s Catch (?)
In 2000, Tennessee virtually dominated the Florida Gators behind 175 yards from RB Travis Henry. However, the inability to put the ball in the endzone resulted in 5 FGs and allowed Florida a chance to win the game. Down 23-20 with 14 seconds left, Gator QB Jesse Palmer found WR Jabar Gaffney from 3 yards out for a TD…or was it? Although it was ruled a TD, giving Florida the 27-23 victory, Volunteer fans dispute the catch to this day and say Gaffney never had full possession of the ball.
In 2001, the Vols and Gators were scheduled to meet in September. However, the SEC postponed all games that week due to the events of 9/11. The game ended up being held on December 1 in Gainesville, FL on the last open date before the SEC Championship Game. The Vols went on to upset the heavily favored Gators 34-32 behind an inspired performance from All-American RB Travis Stephens, who rushed 226 yards and 2 TDs.
Tennessee’s last victory in the rivalry was a mixture of controversy and redemption. Trailing 28-21 in the 4th quarter, the Vols found the endzone for what everyone thought was going to be the tying score. However, Kicker James Wilhoit missed the extra point and left the Volunteers down 28-27. In the final minutes, Florida attempted to run out the clock. After being stopped on 3rd down, Florida WR Dallas Baker was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and the Gators were penalized 15 yards. Controversy ensued when the officials did not restart the clock after the penalty. UT received the punt and drove to give Wilhoit a shot at redemption. His 50 yard FG attempt went through the uprights, giving the Vols the 30-28 victory