A SEASON'S CLIMAX ... IN SEPTEMBER
With apologies to Ole Miss/Mississippi State and Alabama/Auburn, Tennessee and Florida have become -- hands down and fangs bared -- the most bitter rivalry in SEC football. These institutions carry the kind of animosity -- and cheer with the kind of vitriol -- southern football fans relish as the leaves start to brown. What was it former Gator coach Steve Spurrier (the great Darth Visor himself) said about his native state's preeminent gridiron institution? "You can't spell Citrus Bowl," quacked Spurrier, "without U and T."
It's a crying shame the SEC hasn't figured out just how important this rivalry is to the conference . . . really to the landscape of college football nationwide. The two Eastern Division powers will face off this Saturday in Gainesville, and far too much will be at stake for a September football game. The winner gains the inside track toward a berth in the SEC Championship Game come December (though Georgia will have a lot to say about that). The loser can toss out any hopes for a national title. This game should be played in late November, in football weather, when young men become heroes . . . and heroes become legends.
The Vols and Gators haven't always made such a compelling story line. Tennessee won the first 10 games played between the two schools, outscoring the Gators 193-56 between 1916 and 1953. Despite the lopsided scores, Tennessee's Hall of Fame coach -- General Robert Neyland -- was prescient in his schedule-making, as UT wrapped up the season against Florida in 1928, 1930, and 1932. The two programs only played once in the Sixties, split four games in the Seventies, then only twice (both Florida wins) in the Eighties. It wasn't until Spurrier's return to his alma mater in 1990 and the split of the conference into two divisions in 1992 that the sports world gained the kind of blood-and-honor rivalry we now witness every . . . September.
Florida has dominated the series over the last 13 years, having won nine games by an average margin of 13 points. The Gators have won when they've been favored (second-ranked Florida beat fourth-ranked Tennessee and senior quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997) and when they've been the underdog (fourth-ranked Florida ended the second-ranked Vols' 14-game winning streak in 1999). They've won with offensive stars (see Danny Wuerffel) and defensive stars (see Alex Brown).
As for Tennessee, when they've managed to beat Florida, good things follow. UT's overtime victory in 1998 catapulted the program to its first national championship in 47 years. Then in 2001 -- when the terrorist attacks of September 11th moved the game all the way back to December 1st -- Travis Stephens' 226 yards rushing led the Vols to a 34-32 win and a berth in the SEC Championship. Only an upset by LSU kept that Tennessee squad from playing for another national title. Over the course of the SEC Championship Game's first decade, the Eastern Division representative always wore orange (the Gators playing for the title seven times, the Vols three).
So we find ourselves at the dawn of the 2003 campaign, Tennessee having played a pair of "warm-ups" against Fresno State and Marshall, Florida having already tickled the belly of the beast by facing Miami. (Having blown a 23-point cushion against the Hurricanes, Ron Zook's squad licked their wounds by licking Florida A&M last Saturday, while Tennessee enjoyed a bye week.) This weekend's tilt will be the first conference game for each school, as opposed to the final, climactic clash it might be if dropped to a date closer to Thanksgiving.
Florida traditionally finishes its season with a showdown against Florida State. And yes, this is a major date, year after year, on the college football calendar. But would it be any less significant if it were played in September? Say what you will about intrastate rivalries, but they bow in impact to the mighty intraconference blood-feuds . . . the games that determine champions, that shape major bowl lineups.
If you want to define the expression, "let down," take this into consideration. The winner of the Gator-Vol confrontation this Saturday will
celebrate like the entire sports-viewing population of America is watching. Then they'll return to their dorms, turn on SportsCenter . . . and see baseball highlights. Something's wrong here.