My favorite thing on the year old SEC Network is without question SEC Rewind, a series that replays the original broadcast of classic SEC football games interspersed with commentary from involved coaches, players and journalists. There are moments over my morning coffee when I wonder if SEC Rewind being my favorite program on SEC Network is a regrettable commentary on the reality of being a Florida Gator at present, and while that thought is likely not without some justice in the end I think the old games are just great television.
This week the SEC Rewind game- or one of them- was the 1995 Florida-Tennessee game. Like so many Gator games in the Spurrier era, it’s a game I was blessed to attend in person with my Dad and remains one of the weirdest football games I’ve ever seen. The Gators were, heading into the game, the two-time defending SEC Champions, still building towards the Spurrier pinnacle that was some 16 months away. Quarterbacked by Danny Wuerffel, in his first season as the full-time starter, the team had an awesome array of offensive talent, featuring 8 future NFL players as starters and NFL guys like Fred Taylor on the bench. The Volunteers were building towards the Fulmer pinnacle, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning and featuring their own arsenal of offensive skill, with 7 future NFL players starting. Both teams entered the game in the top 10. The Vols hadn’t defeated Florida since 1992, but felt confident entering the game. It was Manning’s first shot at Florida as a starting quarterback.
After a Florida punt, the Vols wasted little time jumping all over Florida, silencing the fiery crowd of 85,000+ with a 2 play, 85 yard scoring drive that saw Manning hit Joey Kent on a 72 yard go route (beating future NFL corner Fred Weary) on the Vols first play from scrimmage. The Gators answered with a nice drive and an Ike Hilliard touchdown, but could not stop the Volunteers throughout the first half and following a turnover, found themselves trailing 23-14 with Tennessee again in possession.
What followed was a play that setup one of the stranger two quarters of football in Florida history. On 3rd and 13, Florida was threatening to get its first stop of the half with 3 and a half minutes remaining. Flushed, Manning fired a dart to All-American Joey Kent on a little crossing in-route for what looked to be another first down. Florida’s nickel was lost on the play but free safety Lawrence Wright was not:
Wright’s hit forced a fumble and appeared to turn the tide of the football game. The crowd was still celebrating the stunning hit when Danny Wuerffel fumbled on the very next play, leading to a scoop and score and a 30-14 Florida deficit. It was as bizarre a two play sequence as you’ll ever see, and only the beginning.
The hit turned the tide for Florida’s defense, confidence wise. They played the second half with passion and swagger. Meanwhile, the insertion of Fred Taylor as the consistent tailback in the second half helped UF establish the run, which took pressure off Wuerffel and allowed him to get into rhythm. Then, in fitting metaphor, as the Gators began to pour on the points, a torrential rainfall began in the Swamp. The drain pipes above the Sunshine seats in the north end zone poured rainwater on the crowd below. Ponchos weren’t a defense. The game probably would have been delayed today but 20 years ago if you couldn’t see lightning you were playing and the Gators and Vols played on.
The rain ignited Florida and ruined Tennessee. A rainy Swamp is where Gators live, and the onslaught that came with the rains proved it. When it was over, Florida had scored 48 consecutive points and led 62-30 before a late Vols score made it 62-37. Wuerffel threw an SEC record six touchdown passes, four to Ike Hilliard who handed one football to the Tennessee drum major, paired with a hush sign. It would have been 15 yards today but when you score four touchdowns, maybe you let it slide? The following week, Wuerffel ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with a rain-soaked photo of the future Heisman winner as much a part of Gator lore as the Tebow in Tallahassee end zone paint image 13 years later. It was vintage Florida under Spurrier: brash and electric yes, but all that a byproduct of being ruthlessly efficient, meticulously prepared, and extremely confident, especially at home.
Remembering that game is fitting given we’ve got Tennessee and Florida in the Swamp Saturday. For a little more than a decade, the Gators-Vols tilt on the third Saturday in September defined the SEC’s renaissance, a fireworks display of well-coached offense, physicality, athletes and atmosphere. The Gators, after 84 years of mediocrity and underachievement were the league’s premier program, redefining how the conference played football. The Volunteers were the loyal, fierce and capable opposition, often coming up short but winning enough to cultivate and demand respect. The games were often close and the heroes and goats and villains roll off the tongue: Danny Wuerffel, Peyton Manning, Ike Hilliard, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Tee Martin, Collins Cooper, Jesse Palmer, Rex Grossman, Jabar Gaffney, the Clausens, and Travis Stephens. And that’s just a sample.
Saturday, CBS is in Gainesville for another edition, and for those watching on TV, the SEC on CBS theme will play and stir emotion and sentiment. The presence of Lundquist and Danielson usually signals a league defining game, but here it’s more a nod to history. A rivalry once about who reigned a conference is now about restoration and relevance.
For Tennessee, it’s a chance to make good on the promise that this would be the season of breakthrough under third year coach Butch Jones. For the first time since the fateful firing of Phil Fulmer, architect of the Vols 1990’s glory, Jones has infused the program with energy and loads of talent. He isn’t a native son like Fulmer was but he does seem genuinely excited to be there and mechanically capable of changing the downtrodden program’s fortune. The Vols nearly made good on their promise to return to the national stage two weeks ago, leading Oklahoma by double-digits in the fourth quarter in front of a frenzied 100,000+ Vols at Neyland Stadium. The promise quickly turned to heartbreak painted orange, Knoxville left numb.
That Jones has changed the optics around Knoxville is without debate. Tennessee were darlings of the preseason magazines and even received 36 first place votes in the SEC East Media poll. But the Jones revolution is missing one critical thing: wins. 28 games into the Jones era the program sports the same record it did in as many games under Derek Dooley, the man Jones replaced: 14-14.
To get win fifteen, Jones will have to do what no Vols head man since Fulmer has done: Beat Florida. It was supposed to happen last year, then Will Muschamp pulled Jeff Driskel in the nick of time and Treon Harris and Matt Jones “sent all those people home disappointed.” Saturday has to be different. There’s no other option and no greater obstacle on the Vols road to restored relevance. The hated Gators, tormentors of the Vols for ten consecutive years, must be dispatched. Jones can call it a “big game because it’s the next game” all he wants, but a loss Saturday isn’t just a setback for the program: it’s a descent back into doubt. Maybe Tennessee’s ceiling doesn’t touch the stars the way it did 20 years ago. Maybe the days of sustained excellence in pale orange are just history, not biography waiting to be written.
There’s urgency on the Gator sideline too. Yes, it is year one of the Jim McElwain reconstruction. Patience comes only in teaspoons in Hogtown but most Gators fans seem to understand the glory of the previous two decades won’t return instantly. Beating Kentucky might be program birthright but beating Tennessee is not, even if it seems a new normal. Florida fans know they could lose but want to see a team that improves each game, competes and doesn’t quit. They’ve seen flashes of the good and pockets of the past in the season’s first three weeks. There is cautious optimism and hopeful skepticism and some days it’s hard to tell which is which. Saturday is a measuring stick, the first test, as the head coach says, against the glass-eaters and fire-breathers to come. Lose Saturday and there’s a quick path to 3-5 come November. Win and well, winning is a habit, an exercise in preparation, execution and self-belief.
Two teams, each reverent toward their storied past, trying to restore what was and carve out a better place for what’s to be. That’s what Saturday is about. There’s certainly more than a kernel of truth to the notion that the game means more to the Vols, because the Jones rebuild is further along and Florida is the ultimate “hump” game.
I disagree. I think the game is slightly more important to Florida because the Gators aren’t just the home team; they are playing to reclaim and reestablish their home. Want to restore Gator relevance? Restore the Swamp first. It’s a foundational step, a requisite precursor. And it’s fitting Tennessee is the first big chance.
The Swamp. Only Gators Get Out of Alive.
One of the iconic introductions in the sport of college football, the only words that follow the video and precede the late Jim Finch’s “Here Come the Gators!” used to be more than a crowd-frenzy inducing exercise in noise. They used to be a warning, a shot across the bow of an opponent, a reminder, in clear and concise terms that only the home team wins here. The Swamp used to be a place Gators lived and thrived and opponents wouldn’t leave without a win or at the least, an admirable and epic fight.
For 12 years under Steve Spurrier, the Gators were an astonishing 68-5 at home. They were 20-5 against ranked teams, and never lost to an unranked opponent, such as Tennessee, who of course enters Gainesville Saturday afternoon unranked. The Gators had winning streaks of 23 and 30 games, respectively, and those streaks ended at the hands of teams that won a national title and a conference title, respectively, in losses by a total of 8 points, one in overtime. The Swamp under Spurrier was a humid, sticky, hot, miserable mosh-pit of noise and intimidation filled with great players and a mystique that carried the Gators on the rare instances they were outmatched. Upset wins over FSU in 1991, #1 FSU in 1997 and defending national champion Tennessee in 1999 come immediately to mind.
When Ron Zook took over for Spurrier, who, tragically and ironically lost his final game in the Swamp- to Tennessee, of course- in 2001, it seemed some of the magic died. The Gators lost more home games under Zook in three seasons than under Spurrier in 12. For the first time in the history of the now defunct EA Sports video game, the Swamp wasn’t listed as “The #1 Toughest Place to Play.” Florida went 0-5 against ranked opponents under Zook, and even lost to an unranked opponent at home for the first time in 15 years, falling to Eli Manning and Ole Miss in 2003.
Enter Urban Meyer, whose first point of emphasis, according to former Gator Jemalle Cornelius, was to restore Florida’s home dominance. “That’s the first thing he wanted us to do,” Cornelius said. “He said we’re Florida, we’re supposed to win all the time. But we have to win at home. Defend the Swamp, that was our biggest job.”
Meyer’s two biggest wins his first season came at home: against ranked Tennessee and ranked Florida State. The Gators wouldn’t lose a home game under Meyer until October of his third season in charge- to Auburn, and only one other game after – the famed Ole Miss and Tebow promise game- until Meyer quit for the first time in December of 2009. As Meyer’s health was failing and his passion waning, the Gators lost their edge, and three games, at home in 2010, but Meyer’s 5 home losses in 6 seasons still included an 8-2 mark against ranked opponents in the Swamp and zero losses at home to rivals Tennessee and Florida State.
Will Muschamp appeared to understand winning at the stadium he grew up attending games at was a prerequisite to keeping a job at Florida, and he won the introductory press conference with the obligatory comments of reverence about the Swamp. Muschamp’s 2012 team went unbeaten at home, with wins over two ranked opponents, LSU and South Carolina. But after a win over Tennessee in 2013, his teams dropped an astonishing six of 8 home games, including the unthinkable defeat to Georgia Southern in the 4-8 2013 campaign and an outright embarrassing 29 point homecoming loss to Missouri in 2014. Even at the end, Muschamp used taking back the Swamp as his Alamo- rallying the team behind that goal after routing Georgia in Jacksonville- only to see a punt blocked and an overtime home loss to a decidedly average South Carolina team seal his fate.
The Swamp. Where Only Unranked Conference Opponents and Occasionally FCS Teams that run the Mid-line Option Get Out Alive. Doesn’t have as nice a ring to it, but it’s the Florida reality of late.
The thinking here is that Jim McElwain understands this, even if his approach to his first rivalry game appears to more in line with his past as a Saban assistant or John L. Smith protégé than it is with Spurrier or Meyer, who openly embraced rivalry games and emphasized them publicly as well as privately.
McElwain, a self-professed history buff, probably finds history instructive and self-serving here. You don’t succeed as head football coach at Florida when you don’t win at home. Florida’s best coaches have all won overwhelmingly in Gainesville: Ray Graves, Steve Spurrier, Meyer. It’s the second piece of what can safely be described as a four piece foundational puzzle:
- Run and execute interesting offense
- Win at Home
- Beat Georgia
- Recruit South Florida
Do those things and the path to restoration and relevance returns quickly.
There’s a scenario last year where Tevin Westbrook catches a ball in the end zone and Florida beats LSU and on down the rabbit hole we go. The Swamp was electric that night and the fans were desperate for a win to hang their hat on, something that said “See, it really is going to be okay. We are going to be better.”
Saturday is another chance.
The Swamp will be electric and blue, the alumni arriving early and the students late, lubricated voices trying to drown out Rocky Top. The Vols have recruited a bit better the last two years but it’s fairly even over the last four and Tennessee still will have to deal with the Florida heat and crowd noise and the pressure to end a 10 year drought against Florida and finally break through- to beat- as I heard SEC Network commentator Greg McElroy put it this morning, a team they are supposed to beat. He’s not alone. Many are expecting Tennessee to grab a signature win. The team in blue won’t have that pressure. The Gators can play fast and loose and for each other and for the Swamp. Just like old times.
Maybe, just maybe, only Gators will get out alive.