Saturday’s Tennessee vs. Florida matchup is a moment of truth for both teams. The Volunteers are still looking for that signature win under Butch Jones that shows it can contend for the SEC East. Gator fans are still uncertain what the future holds with head coach Jim McElwain. While it is not the same as the Steve Spurrier/Philip Fulmer era, this rivalry always brings high drama.
Florida and Tennessee have played 44 times, with 23 of those games taking place since 1992 (when the SEC split into two divisions) and its not hyperbolic to say that at least a quarter of these games have had a direct impact on the national title race.
In looking through the series, five games stand out for their significance. However, there are few qualifiers to note. First, blowouts are not included. Second, the game must have significance to the overall college football picture. For example, last year’s less-than-thrilling 10-9 Florida win in a game played by two teams whose primary seasonal goal was just to get to a bowl game was not even considered for this list.
Finally, some games were very impactful but did not crack the top five of one of college football’s biggest rivalries. Now, without further adieu, here are the five biggest Florida vs. Tennessee games.
5. Florida 17, Tennessee 10
Gainesville, Fla. – Oct. 12, 1985
Both teams were unbeaten and went into the half tied 3-3, but Florida pinned Tennessee deep in its own territory and then converted short drives punctuated by Neal Anderson touchdown runs to take a 17-3 lead. Volunteers quarterback Tony Robinson hit Tim McGee with a 20-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to close the gap to 17-10, but that was as close as the Vols got. Florida’s only blemish that season was a 24-3 loss to Georgia, but the program was on NCAA probation and ineligible for postseason play. The Vols did not lose again, won the SEC title, and upset Miami 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl. In Neyland Stadium, the signage notes Tennessee’s SEC championship. In The Swamp, it highlights the fact that Florida had the best record in the SEC in 1985.
4. Florida 14, Tennessee 13
Jacksonville, Fla. – Dec. 27, 1969
Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey, who had played quarterback for Florida in the 1950s, had taken a fledgling Tennessee program in the early 1960s and returned it to national prominence. In 1969, the 11th-ranked Volunteers were invited to play No. 15 Florida in the Gator Bowl, the only time the two teams have met in the postseason. The game was expected to be an offensive showdown, but the main drama was whether Dickey would take the vacant head coaching position at Florida. Early in the game, Gator defensive back Steve Tannen blocked a Vol punt and linebacker Mike Kelly picked it up and carried it into the end zone to put Florida ahead 7-0. Tennessee responded with 10 points in the second quarter and then the Gators went ahead 14-10 on a touchdown pass from John Reaves to Carlos Alvarez. The Vols were only able to muster a field goal and the Gators came away with a 14-13 win. A few days later, Dickey announced that he was leaving for Florida, creating bitterness and skepticism on both sides. Dickey coached the Gators until 1978 and then returned to Tennessee to serve as Athletic Director from 1985-2002.
3. Florida 21, Tennessee 20
Knoxville, Tenn. – Sept. 16, 2006
Both teams entered undefeated and ranked in the top 20. Despite holding the Vols to -11 yards rushing, the Gators found themselves down 17-7 midway through the third quarter. Florida quarterback Chris Leak completed a touchdown pass to Dallas Baker and the Vols kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 20-14. On the next drive, Florida was facing fourth-and-1 at the Tennessee 28-yard line, but freshman Tim Tebow replaced Leak and picked up the crucial first down. Leak reentered the game and completed another touchdown pass to Baker to put his team ahead. Safety Reggie Nelson intercepted Volunteers quarterback Erik Ainge’s pass on the next drive and the Gators ran out the clock. Florida would go on to win the national championship.
2. Tennessee 20, Florida 17
Knoxville, Tenn. – Sept. 19, 1998
After losing five straight games to Florida, Tennessee responded with a gutsy performance and a little luck. Playing in a deafening Neyland Stadium, Volunteer linebacker Al Wilson caused three fumbles and cornerback Deion Grant snagged an interception to stymie Florida’s prolific passing attack. Meanwhile, a 57-yard touchdown run by fullback Shawn Bryson and leaping end zone catch by Peerless Price gave the Vols a 17-10 lead in the third quarter. However, Florida responded with a 70-yard touchdown pass from Jesse Palmer to Travis McGriff to tie the game. After a scoreless fourth quarter, the game went into overtime. Tennessee got the ball first and kicker Jeff Hall nailed a 41-yard field goal. On Florida’s subsequent series, kicker Collins Cooper hooked his 32-yard attempt and Vol fans stormed the field. It is the last time the goal posts have come down at Neyland Stadium. The Vols would go undefeated and beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national title.
1. Tennessee 34, Florida 32
Gainesville, Fla. – Dec. 1, 2001
The SEC’s biggest rivalry of the 1990s reached its watershed moment with this game and has not been the same since. The game was delayed because of the Sept. 11 attacks and both teams were in the top five when they finally met. The Volunteers jumped out 14-0 in the first quarter, but Florida roared back with 20 unanswered points to take a 20-14 lead into halftime. Vol running back Travis Stephens, who finished the game with 226 yards, broke free for a 35-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to put Tennessee back on top. Florida kicked a pair field goals, but Tennessee scored two more touchdowns to take a 34-26 lead with just a few minutes remaining.
Quarterback Rex Grossman, the best pure passer Spurrier ever coached, led Florida on a 77-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard touchdown pass to Carlos Perez. On the two-point conversion, Grossman was unable to find an open receiver and his pass went incomplete. The win marked the Vols’ first The Swamp since 1971 and put them in position to play Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national title, provided it beat LSU in the SEC Championship Game the next week. However, head coach Philip Fulmer literally smelled the roses too soon and the Vols were upset by the Tigers. Tennessee’s football program has never been that close to a national title since then. In January 2002, Spurrier announced that he was leaving Florida to coach the Washington Redskins. Although the rivalry has had its moments since and the best may be still yet to come, its heyday ended that night in December 2001.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)