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VOL. 42 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 21, 2018

Vols-Gators once meant something. Not as much now

By Rhiannon Potkey

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It used to be appointment viewing for every college football fan. It used to determine the SEC champion and factor into the national title chase.

But the rivalry between Tennessee and Florida has lost much of its luster over the last decade, with not much at stake beyond bragging rights.

As they prepare for Saturday night’s showdown at Neyland Stadium, the programs find themselves in similar circumstances.

Both have a new head coach. Both are trying to establish a new culture. And both desperately want to resurrect the glory days.

“There was always a respect there in years past because of the tradition of both schools. Fast forward and, man, it looks different the last few years,” says former Arkansas and Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, now an analyst for CBS Sports Network.

“It’s just not the same caliber of player it once was on either team, and you just keep waiting for it to get back because of the rich history.”

Tennessee (2-1) and Florida (2-1, 0-1) combined to win 10 SEC titles in a 12-year stretch from 1989-2000. They met as ranked teams 18 consecutive times from 1990-2007, including 11 times as top 10 teams. But since 2007, they’ve both been ranked in the top 25 only three times in the rivalry game.

Their fans have ridden a roller coaster of emotions as the programs have provided moments of optimism followed by head-scratching letdowns.

In their last meeting at Neyland Stadium in 2016, Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Gators with a second-half surge that ended in a cathartic celebration by the Vol faithful.

Florida returned the heartbreak to Tennessee last season as Felipe Franks found Tyrie Cleveland for a 63-yard Hail Mary on the game’s final play to beat the stunned Vols 26-20 in The Swamp.

By the end of the season, both programs were in a shared state of misery. They fired their head coaches with games still remaining, prolonging a cycle of coaching turnover at each school since Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier roamed the sidelines and traded verbal jabs.

Both programs stayed inside the SEC to find replacements, with Florida hiring former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen to replace Jim McElwain and Tennessee hiring former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to replace Butch Jones.

“It is way too early to tell, but I think they both got the right person in place. What they need at this point, and the only way to get better, is to have better players,” explains SEC Network broadcaster Tony Barnhart, who has been covering the SEC for 34 years.

“I don’t think either of those schools recruited particularly well the last three or four years. People can trot out the recruiting rankings and all that stuff, but all I know is I am looking at the players on the field and I don’t see either team with a whole lot of difference makers.

“I don’t see guys who can make big plays and turn games around.”

Saturday’s game will be only the second time in the 102-year series history that both programs have new head coaches. The other meeting came in 1970 when Bill Battle led the No. 11 Vols over Doug Dickey’s Gators in Knoxville.

Pruitt will be getting his first taste of the heated rivalry.

“When I was growing up, it was always the first big SEC game of the year,” Pruitt says. “I always loved to watch it – always a lot of passion with both fan bases, a lot of tradition. I’m thankful to have the chance to be a part of it.”

Mullen previously experienced the rivalry as the offensive coordinator for the Gators in 2005-08. Although its national relevance has waned, Mullen acknowledges the rivalry retains importance beyond the South.

“Primetime ESPN game, so there is a lot of people out there. I still think it is a big game,” Mullen adds. “... I think both programs obviously want to get back where this has something to do with who wins the (SEC) East. I think that always adds to the rivalry, but I still think everybody still feels it’s a pretty big game.”

The Tennessee players won’t argue. Playing their SEC opener under the lights at Neyland against their biggest rival is why most of them came to Tennessee.

“I can remember when I was 3 years old, this is the rivalry everybody talks about – UT and Florida. This is the game that I’ve always loved to play in,” says Tennessee redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Johnson.

“When I was a kid, this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Tennessee football player playing Florida at home. This means everything to me. It’s huge. I know it means a lot to Vol Nation and I’m really excited about this game.”

The Vols are trying to rebound from a historic low. Tennessee finished winless in SEC play for the first time in history last season.

While Tennessee will be kicking off a challenging opening stretch of SEC play that includes No. 2 Georgia, No. 9 Auburn and No. 1 Alabama, Florida has already suffered a loss in the SEC.

Kentucky beat the Gators two weeks ago to snap Florida’s 31-game winning streak against the Wildcats.

Rather than contending for a spot near the top of the East standings, Saturday’s outcome may help Tennessee or Florida avoid dwelling near the bottom with the other East programs having gained ground over the years.

“I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be ugly football. It could be a 17-13, 16-10 type of game,” SEC Network host Dari Nowkah points out. “But I think we come out of this saying these guys have a long way to go, even in the East right now.”

Which program gets back to title-contending status faster?

“I think Florida is a couple of steps ahead of where Tennessee is,” Nowkah adds. “Florida has an offensive identity, and I think has a lot of trust in Dan Mullen designing an offense suited for the players at Florida, which I think are markedly better than what Jeremy Pruitt walked into at Tennessee.”

Nutt remembers being an assistant at Arkansas in 1991 and admiring the number of “phenomenal athletes” on Tennessee’s team when the Vols were stretching before the game. Compared to other major conference teams, he hasn’t seen the same type of players at either Tennessee or Florida lately.

“I think recruiting has contributed to the decline, and you can’t just say it’s one year. You have to go back about five or six years,” Nutt says. “It just takes one or two missed classes and all of a sudden, boom, you start to fall. It is just very difficult to climb yourself out of that hole when things aren’t going right.”

The Vols will be given a reminder of their glory days this weekend with Tennessee honoring the 1998 national championship team. Players, coaches and support staff will return to Knoxville for a 20th anniversary reunion of the undefeated run.

That Tennessee team beat Florida at home 20-17 in overtime, with Jeff Hall kicking a 41-yard field goal to snap a five-game losing streak to the Gators.

Although this season’s game won’t hold as much national significance, emotions will still be running high. No matter the sport or circumstances, beating each other always means more.

“I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere because it’s the first conference game and first conference home game for Tennessee. Everyone will be interested to see if they can rise to the occasion and to see how Florida plays on the road,” Barnhart says.

“It’s not like the old days, but it’s going to be pretty compelling television.”

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