Perhaps the best moniker for Tennessee-Florida would be the Sound Bite Bowl.
No other rivalry in recent SEC history has produced more quips and memorable quotes, especially between coaches. Those who have coached each of these teams have enjoyed getting under each other’s skin.
It started in the 1990s with Florida’s Steve Spurrier and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. The pair privately had a lot of respect for each other. But publicly, both of their programs were on the rise, and ended up dominating the SEC East Division.
But when Florida had the advantage over Tennessee one year, Spurrier made his famous joke that “you can’t spell Citrus (bowl) without UT.” But the next year it was Florida playing in the Citrus Bowl. A Tennessee fan paid for a plane to fly overhead with a sign saying: “How was the Citrus Bowl, Spurrier?”
In the 2000s, it was Lane Kiffin vs. Urban Meyer, despite the fact Kiffin was only at Tennessee for one year. He directed several barbs at Florida and Meyer, and at one point went over the line, alleging that Meyer had “cheated” in recruiting. In fact Meyer had not, and the SEC office reprimanded Kiffin.
When Kiffin left for Southern Cal, an ESPN camera caught Meyer when the news broke. A sly grin crossed Meyer’s lips.
All of this helped fuel a rivalry that wasn’t that heated – or even played very often – prior to the 1990s.
Tennessee and Florida first met in 1916, but only played intermittently over the next 70 years. There were gaps of eight and 14 years between match-ups. It was only when the SEC expanded to 12 and formed into divisions that the Volunteers and Gators moved to playing every season.
And that coincided with each team’s rise to increased prominence. The first 10 East Division titles were won by either Florida or Tennessee.
“If you had asked Tennessee fans after expansion, they would tell you Florida (was the main rival),” former Tennessee sports information director Bud Ford said. “Based on the fact it became an early-season game. … Normally the team that won the game had a chance to win the division.”
Current Volunteer player Ja’Wuan James put it another way: “The younger fans always talk about Florida.”
Lately, it’s been the Gators with the most right to talk. They have won seven in a row, mostly due to Meyer’s six-year run in Gainesville. That included that one very sweet win over Kiffin’s team. (Although the expectation had been that Florida would trounce Tennessee and run it up, but the Volunteers hung in there and only lost 23-13 in Gainesville.)
Whether this rivalry remains fierce going into the future might be open to question. There will never be another period like the 1990s, when the two dominated the division, thanks to the presence of Georgia, and the resurgence of South Carolina – or even the addition of Missouri.
But it’s also unknown how each program will fare under their correct coaches. Derek Dooley is entering his third year at Tennessee with a 11-14 record. Florida’s Will Muschamp was 7-6 in his first year as Meyer’s replacement.
But Florida has too much of a recruiting base to be down for long. If Tennessee can turn it around, perhaps the bulletin-board material will return.