The phrase “Florida-Tennessee rivalry” just doesn’t conjure up the same feelings now as it used to.
If you sat down with a fan of either Florida or Tennessee in the early 2000’s (the decade, not the century) to discuss the series, you’d likely come away with the feeling that this rivalry was up there on the same plane as the Iron Bowl or the Ohio State-Michigan feud. After all, this was the game to watch in the SEC throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s. In fact, every year from 1990-2002, both teams were ranked in the top fifteen when they played; in ten of those thirteen years, both teams entered the game in the top ten. It even decided national championships in 1996 and 1998, cost Tennessee a chance at one in 1997 and cost Florida its chance at one in 2001.
Fast forward to the year 2010, and the Florida-Tennessee rivalry had cooled off nationally but was still every bit as heated locally. There was, of course, the infamous little girl-slapfest between Dallas Baker and Johnathan Wade in 2004, Brandon Spikes accusing the Vols of “quitting” in a 59-20 Gator beatdown in 2007, and the Lane Kiffin saga of 2009. Tennessee had gradually declined throughout the first decade, but both sides still hated each other quite vociferously and thus, this game had more meaning than most.
Hell, even a mere two years ago this game could fairly be given the title of “rivalry.” Florida had reeled off eleven in a row over the Volunteers, but the tail end of that streak- one point comeback wins in 2014 and 2015- forced the Gators to take the Vols seriously… until they didn’t, and choked away a 21-0 lead in Knoxville in a shocking 38-28 loss to snap the streak in 2016. Tennessee fans took that win and ran with it; Quincy Wilson’s “duck pulling a truck” comment and Jalen Tabor getting burned by Jauan Jennings became memes, and Gator fans were forced to treat them as if they mattered again. And then came 2017, a horrifyingly sloppy game that neither team really deserved to win and that ended with a miraculous walk-off Hail Mary from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland to start a new streak for Florida. With all those images fresh in fans’ minds, the buildup to the 2018 game was as fierce as ever.
Now? We’re in a completely different world.
Tennessee’s program has fallen off of a cliff and is rapidly descending lower and lower into the depths of college football’s abyss. And in a stunning turn of events, Vol fans- generally known for brash, cocky and downright truculent attitudes even when their football team isn’t particularly successful- are now the first to admit it. Butch Jones did beat Florida to break that streak, but he also led them to their worst season in school history the following year and so far, Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure has been even worse. There was the faintest, slightest glimmer of hope for the Vols when Pruitt guided them to six straight wins to finish off a season that had started with losses to Georgia State and BYU, and then built on that with a 2-0 start this year, but that was followed by five straight losses. Now Tennessee has a COVID outbreak to deal with, and many fans are calling for Pruitt’s head.
Florida, meanwhile, is on the other end of that spectrum, and still rising. Blowouts of 47-21 and 34-3 the last two years doesn’t come close to describing the disparity between the two programs. Back to back New Year’s Six Bowl wins and top ten finishes simply aren’t good enough for Dan Mullen’s program anymore; they’re aiming higher. For that matter, three touchdown wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky left coaches and fans alike grousing about all the room for improvement. And Tennessee merely happens to be in their way, as their next practice dummy. The talk this week hasn’t been about all the great moments this once-great rivalry has brought; it’s been about Florida’s new blue helmets, how Florida can finally clinch the East and just how many points Florida can win by.
The fact is that nowadays, a win over Tennessee carries no more joy for fans or players than a win over South Carolina, or Kentucky, or Vanderbilt. Florida’s supposed to win this game. Gator fans don’t think there’s a chance Florida will lose (nor should they), but even if the unthinkable does happen, the prevailing feeling (outside of a select few fans who will never let 2001 go) is likely to be one of shock and dismay that the season was ruined, as opposed to sheer fury over the fact that the season was ruined by Tennessee. Big, big difference.
And the reason this is the case is several years of these programs taking opposite trajectories. Florida has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Kyle Trask, the best tight end in the country in Kyle Pitts, a plethora of additional playmakers at the skill positions, and an offensive line that’s not elite, but certainly solid. Defensively, though there are clearly some signs of progress, Florida’s still definitely got some holes… but here’s where you factor in the opposition. Tennessee’s offense (which by the way is only mustering 339.3 yards a game, which is the 22nd lowest in all of FBS) features a quarterback that fans are begging to be benched in Jarrett Guarantano, a porous offensive line and exactly one skill position player (Eric Gray) who’s proven capable of producing. And as shaky as Florida’s defense has been, Tennessee’s is quantifiably worse.
All that didn’t happen overnight. The Florida-Tennessee rivalry was basically reset in 2018, after both schools fired their coaches for abysmal four win 2017 seasons. Mullen and Pruitt came to their respective schools at the exact same time. What those two men did since then has shaped this series not just since then, but for years to come. Pruitt- or whoever his successor is- will have a hell of a rebuild on his hands, while Florida figures to be humming along, churning out top ten finish after top ten finish as a worst case scenario. This talent gap isn’t going to be fixed in a year. Florida isn’t going anywhere. The Gators may have some down years, and Tennessee may even pull an upset at some point, but these programs are in completely different universes both from a talent perspective and a mentality perspective.
So the Florida-Tennessee rivalry isn’t really a rivalry anymore. Not because of the scores the last two times these teams played, not because Florida’s won fourteen out of the last fifteen over Tennessee, and not because Tennessee is 6-27 against Florida since the conclusion of the Vietnam War. No, it’s not a rivalry anymore because of a much deeper reason than shallow scores and numbers. When you add up all that’s transpired in the last decade and a half, and then combine that with the current states of the programs, this game simply doesn’t have any more meaning than Florida’s games against any of the other teams in the SEC East. The Gators and Vols may have once had a stretch where every game was considered life or death in the dozen years that Steve Spurrier prowled the sidelines in Gainesville, but that’s just not the case anymore.
That’s not to say Saturday doesn’t mean a great deal to both teams. It’s Florida’s long awaited chance to clinch the East for the first time since 2016, and it’s Tennessee’s last real chance to salvage something, anything, in front of their home fans in what’s been a lost 2020 season. But this game doesn’t truly mean more to either side than it would, if, say, South Carolina was the opponent. It’s an SEC game. Of course you want to beat the other team. Of course you’d prefer the opposing fanbase to be silent than to be jabbering about how they beat you. But the name of the opponent simply doesn’t carry the power of a true rival.
And for Florida, a team that’s eyeing SEC Championship Game and College Football Playoff berths on a yearly basis, that’s just fine. They’ve got bigger fish to “smoke” anyway.