Vols, Gators colliding for the final time as SEC East rivals

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy stretches out for a touchdown reception during last year's 38-33 win over Florida inside Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers and Gators are playing as Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals for the final time Saturday night in Gainesville.

Florida and Tennessee are not playing for the final time Saturday.

The Gators and Volunteers are, however, conducting their last showdown as Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals, and what rivals they've been.

In November of 1990, the SEC revealed a new football structure consisting of two six-team divisions that would be implemented in 1992. Arkansas and South Carolina had been announced months earlier as the league's 11th and 12th members, and no rivalry flourished as a result more than the Florida-Tennessee pairing.

The Gators and Vols had met just 16 times from the SEC's inception in 1933 through 1991, but they combined to win the first 10 East crowns from 1992-2001. There were the battles within the battles, most notably between coaches Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer and quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning, but the league's most recent realignment round containing the arrivals of Texas and Oklahoma has led to the SEC doing away with divisions next year for its 16-team lineup.

Florida and Tennessee are colliding Saturday night in Gainesville (7 on ESPN) and are scheduled to play next season in Knoxville, but they are then expected to meet twice every four years. Vying twice every four seasons is also expected to be the case with the Georgia-Tennessee clash as well.

"The continued growth and strength of this league is positive as we continue to grow and expand," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "With that, I think it's hard, because some of these divisional games that you've played every year certainly are fun for fan bases, players and coaches.

"At the same time, you want to have an opportunity for your players and staff and fans to experience all the different places inside of the league, too."

Georgia is hosting South Carolina in another SEC East matchup Saturday (3:30 on CBS). The Bulldogs and Gamecocks have met every year since 1958 with just five exceptions, but this border contest will not take place next year in the league's bridge schedule.

The SEC has yet to decide past 2024 whether it will remain with an eight-game league schedule or adopt a nine-game model.

  photo  Florida Athletics photo / The 1995 Florida Gators take the field before their memorable 62-37 comeback rout over Tennessee. The Gators went 11-0 during the 1995 regular season, while the Volunteers went 10-1.

"I think it's the cost of progress, and any time you have progress, sometimes you have changes," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "People make changes hopefully for the better and for the long-term goal of what we're trying to get to. That's a change our leaders felt was necessary."

The Florida-Tennessee rivalry as divisional foes began with the Gators claiming eight of the first 13 matchups, including a 62-37 win in the Swamp in 1995, when the Gators scored 48 straight points after trailing 30-14 in the second quarter. Manning lost all four years against the Gators from 1994-97, but quarterback Tee Martin and linebacker Al Wilson helped the Vols to a 20-17 overtime triumph in 1998, which led to a field-storming in Neyland Stadium.

Florida and Tennessee combined to win two national championships in a three-year stretch, with the Gators claiming the title in 1996 and the Vols in 1998.

Tennessee handed Spurrier his last lost with the Gators, defeating them 34-32 at Gainesville in December 2001, when the game was moved from September due to the 9/11 attacks. The Vols won four of seven series meetings from 1998-2004 but have only prevailed twice since, with one being last season's 38-33 triumph.

"We've done a ton relative to educating our players about the rivalry," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "We do have some veteran players who understand that. You have a new group of people and new staff members each year, and we've gone back to educate everyone on the history and the magnitude of this game.

"This was the game at one point in time in college football."

A learning moment

Heupel was asked during Monday's weekly news conference about Saturday's 30-13 downing of Austin Peay, and he said there were multiple positives despite the closer-than-expected outcome.

He cited his team's overall effort, the play on special teams, averaging more than seven yards per rush, and the quality of defense for most of the contest. He was asked if such a mediocre result could be beneficial in the days and weeks ahead.

"It can be. Absolutely," Heupel said. "As much as anything, the competitive edge you have to have is extremely important, and the difference between success and failure in this game is really small. It wasn't all 11 at one time, and we can be better. We need to be better.

"These guys have a great care factor about them, and I think we'll have a great week of practice."

It is Mays time?

Cooper Mays missed most of preseason camp and has yet to play this season, but that could be changing this week.

Heupel said Monday that the 6-foot-3, 305-pound senior center warmed up before the Austin Peay game but that the decision had been made early last week that he wasn't going to play. He added that he anticipates Mays "having a good week of practice here and being ready."

Moments later, Heupel was asked if there were any concerns about Mays making his season debut against the Gators in Gainesville.

"If he's playing, we have great confidence that he's going to play at the level he wants to and that we need him to," Heupel said.

Odds and ends

Tennessee's home game Sept. 23 against UTSA will kick off at 4 p.m., and it will be televised by the SEC Network. ... Heupel needed 28 games to reach 20 wins as Tennessee's coach, nearly matching Fulmer, who needed 27. ... Tennessee's 10-game winning streak inside Neyland Stadium is the longest since the Vols won 23 in a row from 1996-2000.


Tennessees football record against fellow Eastern Division members since 1992:

28-3 versus Kentucky

25-6 versus Vanderbilt

21-10 versus South Carolina

6-5 versus Missouri*

14-17 versus Georgia

7-24 versus Florida

*— Missouri joined the SEC in 2012

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].