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Vols vs. Gators: the five biggest games

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The Third Saturday in September might have produced more victories for the blue team than the orange team in the years since the SEC moved to divisional play in 1992, but there have been plenty of great games along the way, regardless of the victor.

It goes without saying that any list of Top 5 games between Tennessee and Florida is going to vary depending on the allegiance of the list’s author. Florida fans will be quick to list games like 1995 and 2015, while Tennessee fans are more apt to list 1998 and 2016. All four of those games were riveting, regardless of who came out on top.

From Tennessee fans’ perspective, these five games between the Vols and the Gators are hard to top.

5.) 1990: Tennessee 45, Florida 3

The 1990 meeting between Tennessee and Florida marked the beginning of an annual showdown between the Vols and Gators, which continues to date. It was Steve Spurrier’s first game against the Vols as head coach, and his first game at Neyland Stadium since he had led his Duke team to a 31-26 upset two years earlier.

Spurrier’s return trip would not go nearly as well. The game between No. 5 Tennessee and No. 9 Florida was a surprisingly defensive-tilted struggle in the first half, with the Vols taking a 7-3 lead to halftime. Everyone had expected a high-scoring game, given Spurrier’s fun-and-gun offense and Tennessee’s explosive playmakers. But it simply didn’t pan out in the first half.

The second half proved to be a different story — at least for Tennessee. Dale carter returned the second half kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown to ignite the Neyland Stadium crowd. Florida marched inside Tennessee’s 40-yard-line on the ensuing possession, but fumbled the ball away. The Vols scored again, and the rout was on.

Florida turned the ball over six times in the second half, giving Andy Kelly, Tony Thompson and Carl Pickens plenty of opportunities to work, as the Vols outscored the Gators 38-0 in the second half for a 45-3 win.

Tennessee would lose to Alabama the following week, but still managed to win the SEC Championship for a second consecutive year. The Vols went on to beat Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.

4.) 2004: Tennessee 30, Florida 28

Redemption.

That’s the only way to describe James Wilhoit’s 50-yard field goal as time expired against Florida at Neyland Stadium in 2004.

With a stadium record 109,061 looking on, true freshman quarterback Erik Ainge led No. 13 Tennessee against No. 9 Florida, and the Vols stood toe-to-toe with the Gators as they looked for their third victory in four years in the series.

The Vols found themselves trailing late in the game, 28-21. But Ainge engineered a touchdown drive in the game’s final five minutes, including a 32-yard completion on fourth down. The touchdown came on an Ainge pass to Jayson Swain with 3:25 remaining. Overtime, right?

Wrong. Wilhoit missed the almost automatic extra point attempt. He had made 47 PATs in a row but missed the biggest of his career. Tennessee still trailed, 28-27, and Wilhoit later said he received nasty text messages as he returned to the sideline.

On the ensuing possession, Florida picked up one first down but then saw Tennessee’s defense stiffen its backs and forced the Gators to punt. Ainge and the Vols’ offense drove the ball to the Florida 33-yard-line, giving Wilhoit an opportunity to redeem himself with a 50-yard field goal attempt. He made it, with six seconds left on the clock, to lift Tennessee to the 30-28 win.

The game’s ending was shrouded in controversy. Florida’s last possession ended with a personal foul penalty against the Gators. It backed up Florida 15 yards, forcing the Gators to punt from deep in their own territory despite what should have been off-setting penalties. The penalty was compounded when the officials failed to restart the clock after the penalty was stepped off, giving Tennessee an additional 25 seconds to work with. It was a mistake by the officials, but it off-set the catch-that-wasn’t-a-catch at Neyland Stadium four years earlier, when a mistake by the officials allowed Florida to win a close game that it shouldn’t have won.

Tennessee went on to win the SEC East for the second time in four years, facing Auburn in the conference championship game.

3.) 2016: Tennessee 38, Florida 28

Can a duck pull a truck?

That was the question as the 2016 showdown between Tennessee and Florida rolled around. No one knew exactly what the question meant or implied. But Gator cornerback Quincy Wilson had guaranteed that his team would beat Tennessee: “Nobody has ever seen a duck pull a truck. Florida Gators are going to win, simple as that.”

Starting a backup (Austin Appleby) at quarterback, No. 19 Florida jumped to a 21-0 lead over No. 14 Tennessee. The Vols had scoring opportunities but could not convert, and trailed 21-3 at halftime.

But the second half was a complete reversal of fortunes. Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs threw four touchdown passes and ran for another, as the Vols scored 38 unanswered points to win the game, 38-28. One of fans’ favorite moments came when wide receiver Jauan Jennings burned Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor for a long touchdown. Tabor, like Wilson, had confidently predicted that Florida would win the game.

Unlike the top two games on this list, the 2016 Tennessee win over Florida did not propel the Vols to an SEC East championship. Tennessee suffered a late-season collapse that included losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, allowing the Gators to win the East for a second consecutive season. But the game did allow Tennessee to snap an 11-game losing streak to Florida. It was the Vols’ first victory in the series since 2004.

2.) 1998: Tennessee 20, Florida 17

Who hasn’t heard the renowned call of John Ward, the former Vol Network play-by-play announcer, as the legendary Voice of the Vols described the scene that unfolded at Neyland Stadium on the Third Saturday of September in 1998? One word was all that was necessary: “Nosirree!”

By the time that 1998 season rolled around, Phillip Fulmer’s frustrations with the Steve Spurrier-coached Gators were well documented. Fulmer had never beaten Florida as a head coach. The Vols had completed a three-year stretch that was among the best in program history, but had been denied SEC championships in 1995 and 1996 by Florida. The Gators had also defeated the Vols in 1997, but subsequently lost two games to allow UT to advance to the conference championship game.

Tennessee won that 1997 SEC Championship Game, coming from behind to defeat Auburn. But Peyton Manning, who had returned to Knoxville for his senior season despite being virtually assured as the top pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, never beat the Gators.

Manning was gone by the time that 1998 season rolled around. So was standout defensive end Leonard Little. So how on earth was Tennessee going to find a way to beat Florida?

The Gators came to Knoxville as the nation’s No. 2 team. Many favored the Gators to win their second national championship in three years. Tennessee was ranked No. 6, but had struggled to beat Syracuse in the season opener.

The game was close throughout, tied at 10 at halftime and at 17 at the end of regulation. The defensive struggle continued into the overtime period. Tennessee had the ball first, and found itself behind the sticks. A crucial scramble by junior quarterback Tee Martin on third and long gave Jeff Hall an opportunity to knock home a field goal that gave the Vols a 20-17 lead.

Florida picked up a quick first down, moving the ball inside the 15-yard-line as its possession began. But the Gators’ offense stalled, and Collins Cooper trotted on to attempt a 32-yard field goal to force a second overtime. The kick was off to the left, and the streak was over.

“The kick is in the air and the kick this time is . . . No-Sir-Ee! No-Sir-Ee! Final score: Tennessee 20, Florida 17. Pandemonium reigns!”

That was Ward’s call from the press box high atop Neyland Stadium. On the field below, jubilant Tennessee fans rushed the field, tearing down the stadium’s goal posts and parading them down Cumberland Avenue. A CBS goal post camera famously wound up dumped in the Tennessee River adjacent to the stadium as the celebration unfolded.

Tennessee would go on to win the SEC East, defeat Mississippi State for the school’s first conference title since 1990, and defeat Florida State in the inaugural BCS National Championship Game. It was Tennessee’s first national title since 1951 and first undefeated season since 1938.

1.) 2001: Tennessee 34, Florida 32

It’s hard to pick between the top two games on this list. In some aspects, perhaps, they should be 1a and 1b rather than 1 and 2. Tennessee’s win in the 1998 game catapulted the Vols to their first national championship since 1951. But the 2001 win was monumental for a couple of reasons: its location, and the fact that it was a significant upset.

The 2001 game was the first Tennessee-Florida game since divisional play began in 1992 that was not played on the third Saturday of September. It had originally been scheduled for the third Saturday, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in the SEC making the decision to postpone all games scheduled for the following weekend. Tennessee and Florida played one week after each team’s regular season had been scheduled to end — the Saturday before the SEC Championship Game.

No. 5 Tennessee made the trip to Gainesville with a 9-1 record; its only loss was a 26-24 setback to Georgia in the Hobnail Boot Game. Despite the Vols’ Top 5 ranking, No. 2 Florida was expected to win the game easily. The Gators, who also had just one defeat, a 23-20 loss to Auburn, were a 17.5-point favorite to beat the Vols.

It wasn’t hard to justify the reasoning that Tennessee stood little chance of winning the game. The Vols had not won at Florida Field since 1971. But Vols runningback Travis Stephens had plans to end that streak. Stephens rushed for 226 yards on 19 carries — the second-highest total ever given up by a Florida defense — and Tennessee’s defense limited the Gators to just 36 rushing yards. With the ground game going nowhere, Florida quarterback Rex Grossman threw 51 passes for 362 yards. But his most important pass of all — a two-point conversion try with 1:10 remaining in the game — came up short, allowing the Vols to escape with a 34-32 win.

The victory handed Tennessee the SEC East championship, sending the Vols to Atlanta to face an outmanned LSU team in the following weekend’s conference championship game. Tennessee had the inside track on playing for its second national championship in four years. But the Tigers upset the Vols, sending UT to the Citrus Bowl to face Michigan.

That 2001 game turned out to be the final time Steve Spurrier would face Tennessee as Florida’s head coach. He resigned to pursue a career with the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

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