The third (well, technically fourth now) Saturday in September isn’t what it used to be. People marked the date on their calendars for a game that would shape the entire season, but so much has changed since the days Florida and Tennessee ruled the SEC.
The Gators and Volunteers combined to win 10 SEC championships in 12 years between 1989-2000, and only three times in that stretch did one lose to the other and still go on to compete for the title. That’s how important this game was for more than a decade.
This is not Dan Mullen’s first rodeo with the rivalry, but it looks a bit different than it did the last time he coached in it.
“It used to always be the first SEC game,” Mullen said. “Usually, at that time, it was either Florida or Tennessee was going to win the East, so it gave one such a huge jump on the other for the rest of that season. It was always such a big game early on.”
The two met as ranked teams an astonishing 18 consecutive times from 1990-2007. Now, both come in under new leadership following four-win seasons, and both still look to have a hangover from years under previous coaching staffs.
Florida has lost seven straight games to Power-Five opponents while Tennessee is just ahead at nine. That less-than-desirable streak will come to an end for someone on Saturday, but it won’t change the fact that neither program is near the standard expected of it right now.
Meanwhile, Georgia is in the process of building a monster that will likely dominate the East this season, and by the looks of it, for years to come.
SEC football is just better when Florida and Tennessee have good football teams, but they have a lot to overcome to get back to that point.
“There’s a lot of people out there who still think it’s a big game,” Mullen said. “I think the feel within the program, both programs obviously want to get back where this has a big something to do with who wins the East. I think that always adds to the rivalry.”
Junior wide receiver Josh Hammond grew up a part of the rivalry as he watched his older brother Frankie Hammond Jr. play for the Gators from 2008-2012. The game may not hold the same implications it once did, but he still feels the same energy and excitement when that time rolls around each season.
“The Florida-Tennessee rivalry will always bring that attention between each other to make it a big game, so I don’t think it matters much on the previous season or how the last couple of games have went,” Hammond said. “It’s a great game, always. It makes guys get up and want to play just because the previous years from a long time ago and just how the rivalry has been.”
While the winner of this game won’t be competing in a national title this year, it means a lot for two programs that are still trying to figure things out.
An 0-2 start to SEC play would be detrimental for Florida, especially with teams like Mississippi State, LSU and Georgia still remaining on the schedule.
The rivalry has certainly seen better days, and there are plenty of improvements to be made on both ends before it even comes close to those days again. But there is a lot to gain, and even more to lose, on Rocky Top Saturday.