Recruiting and developing top-flight talent throughout the 1990s, both the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators football team’s boasted rosters loaded with pro-level student-athletes led by national championship-winning coaches.
The Gators and Vols renew their rivalry at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
After all of the All-American awards, the Heismans and the positional player of the year awards were doled out, however, a new decade saw the Volunteers’ program completely bottom out. Each of these decorated schools sent countless players to the NFL, either through the draft or via free agency, but even 17 years later no player from the University of Tennessee has managed to have more of an impact on the League than one Peyton Manning.
He is the only player in the history of the NFL to win four Most Valuable Player awards, he owns a Super Bowl ring and has set multiple passing records.
Manning has dominated at every level he has ever played.
But one team in particular dominated him, had his number and was immune to the Manning magic.
Thus, despite all he has done in the NFL, and the 39-6 overall record he posted at Tennessee, Manning’s body of work will always carry one dark spot. Despite basically ousting Gators Great Tim Tebow as the Denver Broncos starter heading into the 2012 NFL season, Manning’s legacy will never be perfect.
Despite the decades of victories, Manning will never be able to say he beat the Florida Gators.
So, as ESPN’s College GameDay rolls into town and Gators fans descend upon Knoxville this weekend, Gator Country provides a quick timeline of Manning’s efforts against Danny Wuerffel and the Florida Gators.
1994: Gators can sing ‘Rocky Top,’ too, 31-0
If you ask any real Gators fan what Manning’s record against Florida was, they would probably look at you like you were crazy, but then as politely as possible answer, “0-4, stupid.”
However, like Amelia Earhart or the Easter Bunny, the truth of this game, and Manning’s involvement in Tennessee’s blowout loss, seems to be one of those facts that are lost to history.
Actually, thanks to some sort of new-fangled invention, some people have started calling it the ‘Internet’, we quickly learn that the facts are very much on record: Manning was third on the team’s depth chart as a freshman, and only played sparingly, mopping up at the end of the game following an injury to the team’s starter, Todd Helton.
Both of the former Volunteer quarterbacks are playing in Denver these days, but Helton isn’t with the Broncos. The former two-sport star has been lacin’ ‘em up as the Colorado Rockies’ first baseman for the past fifteen years.
1995: Hey, at least Manning put up 37 points, right? Wait, not really, 62-37
Entering his sophomore season, things now were way different for Peyton Manning. The Volunteers were his team now, and in fact the entire nation was now enthralled by college football’s latest darling quarterback.
Feel free to chuckle contentedly from wherever you are, Gators fans, even if it’s a work computer.
In fact, so fascinated was the college football universe by Peyton Manning that, reportedly, Sports Illustrated was planning on putting the hero of Volunteer Nation on their cover the following week, regardless of the outcome of the actual football game.
In fact, after sprinting out to an early 16-point lead on a stormy, rainy day, their cover was looking pretty safe and the weight of Manning’s two-straight losses to the Gators were going to come off his shoulders.
However, once the skies opened up, so did the Florida offense. Tennessee was practically swept away by the deluge of both rain and scoring, and what had been a 30-14 lead morphed into a 62-37 Gators stompin’.
Journalism is a field that is constantly moving, always changing and ever evolving.
The following week, Danny Wuerffel, who threw for six touchdowns in the game, was himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, not Peyton. That’s sports media for you, Mr. Manning.
1996: Third time is not the charm, 35-29
By now, Manning’s third year under center, one can safely assume he hated the Gators, hated Gainesville, hated the Grog House and Gator City, hated, well, just about anything and everything associated with UF.
His loss, literally and figuratively.
The 1996 contest was nearly a flip-flop of the prior year’s contest. Nearly being the operative word.
In his first start against the Gators as a sophomore in 1995, he and his teammates blew a 16-point lead and ended up getting, well, stomped. As a testament to how ballin’ the Gators were, that was the only game Tennessee would lose all season. Of course, the Gators didn’t lose any that year.
Florida Gators superhero, Danny Wuerffel, marched his team down the field for a few early scoring drives. It was like the Mon-Stars playing against Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan in the first half of their basketball
game in the cinematic classic that is Space Jam. Over the game’s first 25 minutes, Florida had raced out to a 35-0 lead. Not quite the 66-18 lead the Mon-stars had compiled before the break against MJ and the Looney Toons, but a lead large enough lull even the most astute Gators fan into complacency.
After that, however, just as Jordan led his team on an improbable 48-2 second-half run – yes we’re still talking about a cartoon here, people – it looked like Manning simply wasn’t going to be denied.
However, Manning’s right arm, while doing some amazing things over the last two decades, cannot stretch the length of a basketball court, as Jordan’s did to dunk the team’s game-winning bucket.
Indeed, Manning was denied, for a third time. His furious comeback came up just short. Florida coach Steve Spurrier milked the clock, and as the final seconds ticked away, Manning’s best chance to beat his rivals went into the history books in Florida’s favor, 35-29.
Adding insult to his injured pride, Manning was forced to watch from Moron Mountain as the Gators went on to win the National Championship that year … boom!
In an aside, really hope you like Space Jam, and if so, please click on the halftime link for a box score that will blow your mind.
1997: Not all of college can be fun for everyone, 33-20
Not only was Manning denied the opportunity to beat our Gators, he really never had a chance.
Yet again, the eyes of a nation were upon him, but yet again Manning would come up short. He look solid in his final attempt at beating Florida, but even after tossing three touchdowns, his team was no match for Fred Taylor’s dominance running the football. The dude rushed for 134 yards on a mere 17 attempts, and would go on to be the face of football for the state of Florida for a decade.
Some might feel bad for Manning, while others (read: most) simply enjoy laughing at his attempts to beat the orange and blue. Both are totally reasonable things for a Gators fan to do, of course.
Thinking back on those great Gators teams of the mid-90s certainly conjures up a certain nostalgia for the likes of Taylor, Wuerffel, Jevon Kearse and all the rest.
The mid-90s were some of the glory days of Gators football, not to mention of Bugs Bunny’s basketball career.