Can Josh Heupel, Danny White make Florida-Tennessee rivalry relevant again?

They could never start a rivalry with Florida at UCF. Can they restart one now with the Vols?
Tennessee athletic director Danny White tried, and failed, to start a series with the Gators when he led UCF.
Tennessee athletic director Danny White tried, and failed, to start a series with the Gators when he led UCF. [ CAITIE MCMEKIN/POOL VIA NEWS SENTINEL | AP ]
Published Jan. 27, 2021

UCF tried to start an in-state rivalry with the Gators under Danny White and Josh Heupel.

It failed. A matchup in a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game never materialized in 2018, and the teams never could agree on the scheduling terms for a football series.

Now that White and Heupel have reunited at Tennessee — which became official Wednesday when the Volunteers hired Heupel as their new head coach — they’ll finally get their shots at Florida.

They better not miss. White and Heupel need to get more out of their old/new rivalry than a riled-up fan base and some social media buzz. They need wins.

They need to make Florida-Tennessee interesting again.

Trevon Grimes and the Gators have dominated Tennessee recently.
Trevon Grimes and the Gators have dominated Tennessee recently. [ TIM CASEY | TimCasey ]

The series that settled SEC supremacy in the ’90s has become lopsided and, frankly, lame. The Gators have beaten the Volunteers in 15 of their last 16 meetings. The lone exception was in 2016, when UF blew a 21-3 halftime lead in Knoxville.

There have been interesting moments, of course. Antonio Callaway’s fourth-down catch and run to beat the Vols in 2015. Feleipe Franks’ walk-off touchdown heave two years later. Lane Kiffin promising to sing Rocky Top all night long when he beat Florida (which he never did).

But those rare jolts of excitement have been the exception. Since 2005, only four of the games have been decided by one score. Heupel’s predecessor, Jeremy Pruitt, lost his three chances by a combined 69 points. Even that ugly statistic is misleading; a pair of garbage-time touchdowns in December made his 31-19 defeat look closer than it was.

But maybe Tennessee’s twin hires, six days apart, can stop their ship from sinking and revive this once-great rivalry.

Related: Comparing Tennessee football to the Titanic isn’t fair. To the ship.

In addition to being a respected administrator, White knows how to fire up his fans and create controversy. Remember the self-proclaimed 2017 national championship? He still isn’t backing down from that.

UF coach Dan Mullen isn’t Steve Spurrier, but he has a history of trolling rivals. The Vols would be a logical target — if they can return to relevance.

That’s a big if.

Tennessee hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2007. The recent turmoil has sparked an exodus to the transfer portal. And the NCAA investigation that cost Pruitt his job and carries the threat of serious sanctions isn’t going away anytime soon.

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Given these circumstances, plus the rise of Florida and Georgia in the SEC East, rebuilding the Vols is a major challenge. It’s unclear whether Heupel will be up for it.

Josh Heupel's tenure included a trip to the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa to end the 2019 season.
Josh Heupel's tenure included a trip to the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa to end the 2019 season. [ Times ]

The 42-year-old South Dakota native showed signs of success at UCF. His offenses finished in the top 10 in scoring every year. He finished 28-8 there with an AAC title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.

But his Knights were trending downward, which is why some UCF fans aren’t sorry to see him go. His program slipped from 12-1 with Scott Frost’s nucleus in 2018 to 10-3 in Year 2 to 6-4 last season. Heupel’s 2-7 record in one-score games is another troubling sign.

Although he has not been an SEC head coach, he did rejuvenate Missouri’s offense as the Tigers’ coordinator in 2016-17. One of the highlights: posting 455 yards of offense in a 45-16 win over the Gators in ’17. That gives him as many wins over UF as Tennessee’s last four coaches (Pruitt, Kiffin, Butch Jones and Derek Dooley) had combined. It’s another damning sign of how uninteresting this once-storied series has become. Rivalries aren’t rivalries if the same team wins every year.

White and Heupel can change that.

After trying, and failing, to get a home-and-home series against the Gators at UCF, the Orlando expats finally have their shot to beat the state’s flagship program.

Which leads to an even tougher task: turn Florida-Tennessee into a rivalry again.