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Florida-Tennessee finally feels big again. Thank goodness

A top-20 matchup with “College GameDay” in town has this once-great rivalry looking big again.
Florida Gators fans hope to have something to cheer for Saturday against Tennessee in Knoxville.
Florida Gators fans hope to have something to cheer for Saturday against Tennessee in Knoxville. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Yesterday

GAINESVILLE — The Florida-Tennessee rivalry never went away. It just took a step back on the national scene.

From 1990-2007, all 18 meetings between the Gators and Volunteers were top-25 matchups. Since then, only three meetings featured two ranked teams (2012, ‘16, ‘17).

Until Saturday.

A series that was one of the defining rivalries of the ‘90s is once again at the center of a September Saturday when the No. 20 Gators face No. 11 Tennessee at a sold-out Neyland Stadium with ESPN’s “College GameDay” on hand.

Related: SEC, save the Florida Gators vs. Tennessee football rivalry

“(Ever) since I can remember, this has been a huge game,” first-year Florida coach Billy Napier said. “I’m well aware of that. Certainly our fans are very quick to point that out.”

They’re just as quick on the other side; Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said someone brought up the Florida game to him in his first 30 seconds on campus.

Which raises the question: What took so long?

Tennessee head Josh Heupel said he was asked about the Florida game within his first 30 seconds on campus.
Tennessee head Josh Heupel said he was asked about the Florida game within his first 30 seconds on campus. [ KEITH SRAKOCIC | AP ]

The series lost some buzz because of Tennessee’s struggles. The Gators have won 16 of the last 17 meetings, and the Volunteers haven’t entered the matchup with a top-10 ranking since 2005.

But this one feels different. It finally feels big again.

The stakes are high for the Gators because of how Napier’s first season has played out. UF has already lost a division game. Another defeat would crush whatever hopes the Gators have of winning the SEC East.

A division title, however, never looked like a realistic goal for Napier’s first season. Beating Tennessee is. A loss would make Napier the first UF coach since Bob Woodruff in 1955 to lose to Tennessee and Kentucky in the same season. That won’t help Napier as he tries to rebuild on the recruiting trail.

Florida hasn't lost to Kentucky and Florida in the same year since 1955.
Florida hasn't lost to Kentucky and Florida in the same year since 1955. [ SILAS WALKER | Lexington Herald-Leader ]

The matchup is even bigger for the Volunteers. There’s a different vibe around the program because of Heupel’s two top-25 seasons at UCF and his quick success in Knoxville.

“I think everybody in the organization top to bottom is all pulling in the same direction with the belief that this is the way to go to get Tennessee back to where they believe they belong, competing for SEC championships,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said.

A 3-0 start and lofty ranking justify that belief. But that also raises the stakes for Saturday.

The Volunteers are favored by double digits — the largest points spread, by far, for Tennessee in this series in the last 50 years, according to Action Network, a sports betting site.

The Vols have a veteran quarterback (Hendon Hooker) with a 37-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. They have experience, a semblance of stability and good receivers. And they’re facing a Florida program with a new coach, shaky quarterback and a roster that isn’t elite. If Heupel can’t beat these Gators this year, then when?

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has been one of the nation's top passers.
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has been one of the nation's top passers. [ WADE PAYNE | AP ]

“I bet you my bottom dollar that that program is optimistic but hoping like heck that past history doesn’t rear its head and Florida gains its confidence,” Danielson said. “Because if they lose to this Florida team at this time at home the way they’re playing, this is going to be a devastating loss.”

That’s saying something, given Tennessee’s history of devastating losses. Florida won on 63-yard touchdowns in the final minute in ‘15 and ‘17 before blowing the Vols out each of the past four years.

Florida's Antonio Callaway scored the game-winning touchdown in the Gators' 2015 win over Tennessee.
Florida's Antonio Callaway scored the game-winning touchdown in the Gators' 2015 win over Tennessee. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel (2015) ]

The one exception to Tennessee’s futility was the 2016 matchup — also in Knoxville, also a top-20 matchup, also with “GameDay” in town. Florida talked smack all week about its 11-game winning streak in the series, then blew a three-touchdown lead in a 38-28 loss. It was a cathartic moment for a program hoping for another one this weekend.

“It’s a big game for everybody,” Gators defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson said. “Can’t make the moment too big.”

Good luck with that.

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