The media in Tennessee called the 1996 game between Florida and Tennessee the biggest game ever played in the state of Tennessee.
They thought the Volunteers had the best quarterback in the country in Peyton Manning. They had lost three in a row to the Gators and coach Steve Spurrier was good at giving them the needle about it. The Florida-Tennessee rivalry had become one of the premier matchups in the country and the Vols just knew they would win at Rocky Top.
Back in the day, a popular term was born in reference to the Vols. It was Volsheimers. It seems the three seasons that the Gators had beaten the Vols, their fans would always proclaim at season’s end that Tennessee was a better team than Florida.
It was a bitter, bitter rivalry. Still is.
Here’s the dispatch from the Associated Press on This Day in Gator History: Sept. 21, 1996.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn—Steve Spurrier wasn’t about to let an NCAA-record crowd, a steady rain or even No. 2 Tennessee get in his team’s way of another national title run.
So the Florida coach used two words to get his fourth-ranked Gators ready for Saturday’s showdown against the Volunteers: Be prepared.
Were they ever.
Danny Wuerffel threw four touchdown passes in the first 19 minutes, the Gators intercepted four passes off Peyton Manning in the first half and the Gators had themselves a 35-29 win over the stunned Volunteers.
“We came in very prepared and jumped out of the box in good shape.” said Spurrier, whose Gators (3-0) have won four straight against the Vols (2-1). “I think we had 35 with about 10 minutes left in’the half, so give them credit. We still have a lot to improve on.”
But the damage was done. The Volunteers, even though Manning rebounded from his poor first half with a school-record 492 yards and four TDs, were unable to come back from a 35-0 deficit after 20 minutes.
“We got ourselves in a big hole and it was difficult to overcome,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer .said. “I probably put some people in situations they weren’t quite prepared for in man-to-man situations. I take responsibility for the way the game went.”
It went Wuerffel’s way. The pinpoint passer was accurate when he had to be, throwing TDs of 35, 10, 5 and 15 yards in the first 18:57, and Anthone Lott returned Jeff Graham’s fumble 27 yards for another score less than a minute later.
“We were prepared for the game and were fortunate at the end to run some clock off,” said Wuerffel, who was 11 of 22 for 155 yards.
In a battle of Heisman Trophy contenders, Manning won the numbers battle, hitting on 37 of 65 passes — both school records. But with four first-half interceptions — he had only.four all of last season — Manning now has six in three games.
“I knew there was a game like this out there for me sometime in my career,” Manning said. “I’m just sorry it was against Florida. I feel bad for so many people.”
The game was played, in a steady rain before a Neyland Stadium crowd of 107,608. The previous mark was 106,867 at Michigan Stadium for Ohio State-Michigan on Nov. 20,1993.
In one of the most anticipated games in Southeastern Conference history, the Gators dominated from the outset, and the Vols didn’t have much of a chance despite shutting down Florida in the second half and making it close at the end.
A year ago against the Vols, Wuerffel threw six TD passes and ran for a score as the Gators scored 48 consecutive points to win 62-37 after trailing 30-14.
“That was the darndest first quarter I’ve ever seen,” Fulmer said. “It was like the fourth quarter of last year’s game.”
This time, the Gators.didn’t wait that long in gaining control of the SEC Eastern Division and positioning themselves for another national title run. The Vols, meanwhile, had hoped to avenge last year’s only loss of the season. Instead, Florida stopped the Vols’ 11-game winning streak and all but ended Tennessee hopes of a title run.
On the game’s first possession, Wuerffel was allowed to pass on fourth down and boldly threw a 35-yard TD pass to Reidel Anthony three minutes into the game. Anthony, wide open in the end zone, beat cornerback Raymond Austin.
Of course, this team went on to be one of the best remembered teams in Gator history. At the Sugar Bowl against Florida State, Florida avenged a end-of-season loss to the Seminoles with a 52-20 victory that gave the Gators their first national title. But while the Gators and their fans ended up dancing on Bourbon Street, it was the Gator dance on Good Ole Rocky Top that got the whole thing going in 1996. The Gators had five more seasons with coach Spurrier at the helm and won one more SEC Championship but never got back into a title game.
The Gators are 4-1 on games played on Sept. 21. They have also defeated Air Force 23-20 (1968), Maryland 17-10 (1974) and Tennessee 30-13 (2002) but lost to Syracuse in 1991 by a score of 38-21.