SEC, save the Florida Gators vs. Tennessee football rivalry

The Gators-Vols series isn’t what it used to be, but it still matters. It needs to remain permanent.
The Florida-Tennessee rivalry was one of the biggest games in the sport in the 1990s.
The Florida-Tennessee rivalry was one of the biggest games in the sport in the 1990s. [ Times (1997) ]
Published June 2, 2022|Updated June 3, 2022

DESTIN — The SEC’s powerbrokers have spent two days continuing years-long discussions over future football scheduling. They’ve whittled 30-plus models down to a couple. A decision will come as soon as Friday at the conclusion of the league’s spring meetings at the Hilton Sandestin.

As the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors weigh the upcoming decision, here’s a plea: Keep the Florida-Tennessee rivalry alive as an annual series.

Related: Why Lane Kiffin thinks Florida Gators’ Billy Napier will do well at UF

That might sound obvious, but it isn’t. The SEC must change its scheduling philosophy by the time Texas and Oklahoma arrive (likely in 2025). But the league has been discussing ending its divisional model for years because it wants teams to play each other more frequently. Alabama’s trip to Gainesville last year was the Crimson Tide’s first game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in a decade. That makes little sense.

“There is some fatigue in our current scheduling model,” Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

The Florida-Tennessee series has seen its share of great players, including Tim Tebow.
The Florida-Tennessee series has seen its share of great players, including Tim Tebow. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2007) ]

There are two leading contenders to fix it. One is an eight-game SEC schedule that features one fixed annual opponent. For Florida, that must be Georgia.

But that means every other game rotates, so half the future schedules wouldn’t feature a Florida-Tennessee rivalry that was one of the defining games for fans who came of age in the 1990s.

It’s not just that game. A system with one permanent opponent would protect Texas-Oklahoma but mean that Texas and Texas A&M are back in the same conference … but wouldn’t play each other every year.

“I would love to play Texas,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Related: Jimbo Fisher vs. Nick Saban feud is a dud at SEC spring meetings

The entire sport would love to see it, too. And it wouldn’t happen annually under that model.

It would, however, if the conference adopts the 3-6 system (three permanent opponents and six that rotate). The SEC would expand the pool of annual, secondary rivalries, including Georgia-Auburn, LSU-Mississippi and, hopefully, Florida-Tennessee.

Florida's loss to Tennessee in 2001 cost the Gators a shot at the national title.
Florida's loss to Tennessee in 2001 cost the Gators a shot at the national title. [ Times (2001) ]

Though it wasn’t an annual series until the SEC split into East and West divisions, it quickly became one of the biggest games on the sport’s calendar. From 1991-2007, every meeting between the programs was a matchup of ranked teams. Ten of them were top-10 showdowns.

The Volunteers were the subject of one of Steve Spurrier’s all-time great lines: “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T.”

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Yes, the rivalry has dipped since its glory days. But it still matters now, just as it did in 2008 when new Vols Lane Kiffin promised to sing “Rocky Top” all night long after beating Florida the next year.

Related: 3 takeaways on Florida Gators coach Billy Napier’s SEC meetings news conference

One of the loudest environments I’ve ever experienced was in 2016 when the Gators lost 38-28 in Knoxville. The game itself factored into it — the Volunteers scored 38 consecutive points in a remarkable comeback. But the opponent did, too. The crowd of 102,000 was deafening because that remarkable comeback happened against Florida, a rival that had beaten the Vols 11 times in a row.

The intensity was similar in Gainesville in 15 and ‘17, when the Gators had thrilling victories — a pair of 63-yard, game-winning touchdowns in the final minute and a half. The ecstasy would not have been as extreme if Will Grier’s fourth-and-14 pass to Antonio Callaway had beaten South Carolina or Missouri.

Antonio Callaway's 63-yard touchdown catch beat Tennessee in 2015.
Antonio Callaway's 63-yard touchdown catch beat Tennessee in 2015. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2015) ]

“Down deep,” then-coach Jim McElwain said afterward, “you just don’t lose to Tennessee.”

Because Florida-Tennessee resonates in a way few other games do.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey declined to say whether schools have recommended their permanent opponents, and he wouldn’t go into detail about how those decisions will be made. He did, however, say that the SEC will look at trends and fan interest as part of the equation.

His office will have a lot of moving parts to consider, including other rivalries. It’d be great to keep Florida-LSU and Tennessee’s games against Vanderbilt and Alabama. But it’d be a shame to lose an annual series that meant so much for so long so the Gators can get more visits from Mississippi State and Arkansas.

Heated, historic rivalries are what separates college football — especially in the SEC — from other sports. The sport has seen too many great ones end because of conference realignment. Why lose another unless it’s unavoidable?

Related: Conference realignment: How UCF is preparing for Big 12 move

The good thing, at least, is that some pivotal games aren’t going away, regardless of the format. Florida has no intentions to stop playing Florida State. Stricklin said Georgia “obviously would be one that’s important to us.” Other than that?

“I really don’t have a preference,” Stricklin said.

I do. Keep Florida-Tennessee.

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