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Florida Gators-Tennessee Volunteers rivalry seeks past glory

The Gators celebrate inside a quickly emptying Neyland Stadium last year after their sixth win in a row against the Vols.

Getty Images (2010)

The Gators celebrate inside a quickly emptying Neyland Stadium last year after their sixth win in a row against the Vols.

GAINESVILLE — It is the rivalry that helped make Peyton Manning and Danny Wuerffel household names. It was once so big, so intense and drew so much national interest that CBS made it the marquee game to open its season. It produced infamous quips, including the one by former UF coach Steve Spurrier that "You can't spell Citrus (Bowl) without UT."

But most of all, at its height in the '90s and early part of the past decade, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry signaled the best the SEC had to offer in the half of the division that was clearly superior at the time.

However, when No. 16 Florida and unranked Tennessee meet today, the game will have little significance to college fans outside of Gainesville and Knoxville. During a CBS Sports national teleconference this week, it took about 45 minutes for anyone to bring the game up. And CBS is televising it.

Back in the day, this was generally a matchup of two top five or top 10 teams. During the first 10 years of SEC division play, Florida or Tennessee were the only Eastern Division teams to make it to the SEC Championship Game. Seven of those 10 years, the Vols or Gators won, which is part of the reason the buzz isn't so strong. Both have new coaches — UF's Will Muschamp is in his first season, UT's Derek Dooley in his second — and no one is sure just how good either is.

"I've got mixed emotions about them," longtime CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "To me they both have to prove that they are worthy of mention as contenders for the SEC. They are clearly not in the upper echelon of teams at the beginning of season, but when we entered this game just a year ago, most of the talking heads believed that Florida was the team to beat. So you do it on the field, you do it week in and week out."

But while the game may have lost its national luster, many of the Florida players and coaches say the rivalry is just as intense as ever.

"I think it does (have the same feel)," said Florida quarterback John Brantley, who grew up a Florida fan and loved the rivalry in its glory years. "For the guys in that locker room it definitely has that same intensity that it always has been. I remember a lot. I remember Florida going up there, like Danny Wuerffel, Reidel Anthony and all of them going up there and it was kind of raining outside. We got the W then. It's been a lot of great memories. It's always a great rivalry, and it always will be, I believe."

For many of the current Gators, the game doesn't have much of a unique vibe because for them, it hasn't been unique. Florida has won the past six meetings, meaning nobody on this current squad has ever lost to Tennessee.

And that, Sporting News national football writer Matt Hayes said, is the root of the lost luster.

"Tennessee's decline," he said. "Both teams have to win for a rivalry to sustain, not only in the series, but in general. The struggles at Tennessee of late and the emergence of Alabama under Nick Saban and LSU under Les Miles have made that game (Alabama-LSU) the best game of the year in the SEC. Tennessee has to beat Florida to make that game mean something again."

Muschamp, who grew up a Florida fan and is well aware of the rivalry, said despite the fact the players have attempted to keep things low-key this week, they also recognize this is something special, but maybe not in the sense of the past.

"The players have a different buzz in the locker room," he said. "It's a pivotal game because it's the next one and it's always been the opener for both schools in the (SEC) East. You certainly get a leg up, and obviously it's an important game."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Florida Gators-Tennessee Volunteers rivalry seeks past glory 09/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 12:06am]

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