Florida and Tennessee first played football in 1916. I’ll go out on a limb and say that nobody reading this was alive for that first matchup (a game Tennessee won 24-0 in Tampa) but that the rivalry between Florida and Tennessee didn’t become what it was, and still is, until the nineties.
“It’s still a huge rivalry. It’s a very important game at the University of Florida,” Will Muschamp said. “There’s no question because of the promise both schools had in the ’90s, it was a leadoff game for CBS it seemed like every year. There’s no question that it’s got a great, great history.”
When the SEC expanded into two divisions in 1992, Florida and Tennessee became an annual matchup just as Steve Spurrier and Phil Fulmer were taking their respective universities to new heights. The chess matches between Spurrier and Fulmer were iconic and the rivalry game played every year in September placed the winner of the game firmly in the drivers seat for the SEC Championship game
However, one of the criteria for a rivalry is that the series must be competitive. That is something that it has lacked — as far as record goes — with Florida winning 16-of-21 games since the two teams became regular opponents in 1992. But something still holds strong between the two teams. The lack of parity in the series hasn’t belittled what the game means to Gator fans and to the program.
“It goes way back,” Jeff Driskel said of the rivalry game. “Two storied programs. Since I’ve been here, for a while, we’ve dominated the series, but I know they’re gunning for us. They always do. And they always put up a good fight against us.”
Driskel’s statement is true. While the Gators hold the series edge 23-19 and have won the last eight meetings, the games have been close, certainly much closer than the scoreboard has read at the end of the game.
Over the course of the winning streak, Florida has outscored Tennessee by an average of 15.5 points-per-game and has outscored the Vols by an average of 13.5 points-per-game under Muschamp. However, the games have been, for the most part, much closer than those double-digit advantages in Florida’s favor.
“No, because of the simple fact that it is a rivalry,” Jaylen Watkins said when asked if the game has lost importance during Florida’s wining streak. “The teams are gonna come play no matter what their record is and no matter what our record is. We’re gonna go out and play hard like we’re in the national championship or something.”
Senior offensive lineman Jonotthan Harrison agreed that the rivalry hasn’t diminished and believes that the Gators need to take this opponent seriously. The facts that this is a rivalry game and that it is a conference game are not lost on Harrison and he knows just how close the game on Saturday could wind up being.
“They have been fairly close although they may not seem like that,” Harrison said of the past games with Tennessee. “And in the SEC, anything can happen in the competition. Two plays can change the whole ballgame.”
The magnitude of the game isn’t lost on the team. With a 1-1 record heading into SEC play, the players know what is at stake this week and they know that Tennessee will be looking to avenge an embarrassing loss to Oregon last week.
“Definitely,” Watkins said when asked if the rivalry was still important. “We know those guys are gonna come down ready to throw some punches. We’ve beaten them four times in a row. Obviously they see that and they want to get one on us.”
With a two-week old bitter taste in their mouth, the Gators are looking to get back on track against Tennessee this Saturday in The Swamp and why not have a little fun while they’re doing it?
“I remember it being a lot of fun,” Driskel said of the game last year in Knoxville. “And, you know, beating Tennessee is always fun.”