|Thursday, September 14
Updated: September 15, 4:57 PM ET
Rivalry blossomed after Spurrier took over Gators
By Wayne Drehs
It's hard to believe that a little over a decade ago, Tennessee-Florida meant little to anybody. The Vols' bitter rival was Alabama, with the Gators solely focused on in-state enemy Florida State. The two teams had as much bad blood between them as Kansas and Wyoming.
That couldn't be further from the case now. Since native Tennessean Steve Spurrier became the Florida coach and the SEC split into two divisions, the hatred between these two teams has exploded. With it has come colorful trash talking, bone-jarring collisions, memorable games and a college football atmosphere like few others.
It may not be on the level of Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA or Texas-Oklahoma, but it's awfully close. Just ask Florida offensive lineman Shannon Snell, who has been getting a crash course in rivalry preparation all week.
"I knew a little bit about it, but didn't nearly understand the extent of it," Snell said. "This is a very, very big game. The rivalry is bitter. It's just like Florida State."
Florida (104) and Tennessee (100) are two of just four schools that won 100 games in the 1990s. This year's game marks the sixth straight year and ninth time in 11 seasons that both teams (No. 4 Florida and No. 9 Tennessee) enter ranked in the Top 10. Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, the winner of this game has won the East division six times. The other two the loser of the game won. Want more? How about this -- the winner of this game has won the SEC Championship five times in eight years.
In other words, the game is about much more than bragging rights, even for players who are long gone. Former Gator Jevon Kearse, now with the Tennessee Titans, called many of his former teammates this week, explaining the importance of a win. Kearse wants no part of living in Tennessee after a Gator loss.
Former UT quarterback Tee Martin, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, paid a visit to practice, hoping to relax former roommate A.J. Suggs, who will make his first career start against the vaunted Gator defense.
The welcoming committee is preparing in Knoxville, where UT students have spent much of the week lined up outside 108,000-seat Neyland Stadium, hoping to snag an extra ticket or two. And T-shirts ridiculing Spurrier, the Gators, and just about anything Florida are everywhere around campus.
"You can just feel the excitement around here," Suggs said. "It's difficult to avoid the hype. No matter how hard you try, you can't get away from it."
The game will mark Florida's first return to Knoxville since 1998, when Martin led the Volunteers to a 20-17 overtime win. While the win catapulted UT to the national championship, the celebration that ensued was just as memorable. Tennessee fans tore down both goalposts, eventually dumping one in the Tennessee River. And pieces of the yellow bars can be found hanging from the walls in area sports bars.
That game marked the only time in Spurrier's reign at Florida that his team held an opponent under 21 points and lost. He's now 86-1 in those games.
"It was a real frenzy," senior safety Andre Lott said of the post-game scene. "The game was real intense as it always is against Florida and we came out on top. As we were coming off the field, the fans were going nuts. They rushed onto the field and just took everything over."
"Coming off that field in 1998, that's something I'll never be able to forget," Florida senior Alex Brown said. "That was two years ago now. And I can't wait to go back in there. I don't want to give them reasons to celebrate this year."
Added senior quarterback Jesse Palmer: "That left a bad taste in our mouth. For a lot of the old guys, we can look back and remember what happened in there two years ago. I think that's an advantage. We can try and help the younger guys get ready for that environment."
Tennessee, meanwhile, seems just as crushed by last year's defeat, amidst a season in which they saw themselves as legitimate national title contenders.
"Those guys really ruined our season," wideout Cedrick Wilson said. "It was like a disaster for us. Guys were crying and pouting. That one game cost us the whole season."
For Florida-Tennessee standards, the trash talking this week has been sub-par, though the Gators have tried to stir things up as the game inches closer. Florida defensive end Thaddeus Bullard said on Wednesday, "Dislike is probably a weak word to describe how we fell about them," while Brown commented, "Beating the Gators is a big thing over there. I just want to let those people know it's not going to happen this year."
But perhaps the best bulletin-board material came from yet another Gator D-end, Gerard Warren, who had this to say: "In the back of their minds, they know they can't beat us. They're waiting for the big plays, the big break, something to happen. But deep down, they know when Florida comes to town, we're bringing it."
Tennessee has responded in rather ho-hum fashion, turning the other cheek and choosing to do its talking on Saturday. Before last year's game, Wilson danced in front of the Florida student section, mocking the Gator Chomp.
Adding more intrigue to this rivalry is the ties between the two schools. Tennessee athletics director Doug Dickey played quarterback for Florida and later served as a head coach at both schools. His last game as Tennessee head coach was a 14-13 loss to Florida in the 1969 Gator Bowl. He became the Florida coach the next season.
Spurrier, meanwhile, grew up in the Upper East Mountains of Tennessee from age 12. He is by far the most popular athlete to come from Johnson City, Tenn., and many are still bitter that he chose to play college football for the Gators.
Then there's Tennessee running back Travis Henry, who grew up in Florida but chose to play for the Vols.
"It's developed into a very good rivalry because we are both in the same division, we've both been very successful over the last decade, it's just a big, big game," Spurrier said. "History says that us or Tennessee, whoever wins this game, will win the SEC East. That's how crucial it is."
Added Fulmer: "I like this game. I like preparing for it. It's why you come to Tennessee, to play games like this. If you don't like to play in these type of games, you shouldn't be coaching at this level."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.