Tennessee football: Sept. 26 start brings back 2001 Florida memories

With the new SEC schedule, the Tennessee football Volunteers could open 2020 up against the Gators.

In 2001, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted in the annual rivalry between Tennessee football and the Florida Gators being postponed. After years of that game being the de facto decider in who wins the SEC title, it was moved to the last regular season game of the year for both teams on Dec. 1.

This was a watershed moment for the rivalry, and with both teams in the top five at 9-1, the Vols spoiled what would be Steve Spurrier’s final home game, winning a 34-32 thriller as 18-point underdogs. Fans on Rocky Top have never forgotten that day.

Now, 19 years later, Tennessee football’s game against Florida could be newly significant. The date hasn’t changed, but the SEC scheduling has. And once again, a change in SEC scheduling, just like 2001, gives new meaning to the game.

Because of the conference’s announcement that it would go to conference-only play and a 10-game schedule amidst COVID-19 for 2020 while moving the start date back to Sept. 26, UT and Florida could open their seasons up against each other. Now, that’s assuming that the league doesn’t completely overhaul the schedule, but it’s hard to see that happening.

If the Vols and Gators open up 2020 against each other in Knoxville, there’s a dramatic parallel to them closing out the regular season in 2001 in Gainesville. Like that Gainesville matchup, Florida will be heavy favorites in this one. However, could this give UT an advantage?

After all, while they have to address issues when it comes to key playmakers, Rocky Top stands to benefit the most from early season games. Jeremy Pruitt’s roster is filled with returning starters all over the field, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, that they may be much more ready for an opener than Florida.

Of course, a home crowd may not be a likely advantage, as we don’t even know if fans will be in the stadium for this one. But Tennessee football could still stand to benefit from these changes given its experience compared to last year.

That’s another similarity, by the way, to the 2001 change. Had the Vols played Florida as scheduled in 2001, they likely would have lost. John Henderson had a sprained ankle during that time, and Donte Stallworth, their best receiver, was out with a wrist injury. Also, Kelley Washington and Jason Witten, two eventual elite weapons, hadn’t yet picked up the offense.

All of those players were full healthy and developed when the December showdown happened. On the other hand, Florida would have played with Earnest Graham, their best offensive weapon, if the game were in September. However, in the actual matchup, Graham was hurt.

Simply put, this may be the second time an existential crisis has affected the Tennessee football-Florida matchup. And once again, there’s a chance the crisis favors the Vols. Last time, it moved the game to the end of the season in Gainesville. This time, it appears to make the game the opener for both teams in Knoxville. Such parallels could be very intriguing.