The Tennessee-Florida football game played in mid-September each fall, was always one of the top two or three games of the year in the SEC. In the 1990’s it was one of those two teams practically every year at the top of the SEC East standings. The Gators were national champs in 1996, while the Vols went 13-0 and won it all in 1998.
The Tennessee football team gradually fell upon hard times through the first decade of the twenty-first century, while the Gators under the guidance of Urban Meyer won a pair of BCS Crowns in 2006 and 2008. Now both teams are coming off losing seasons and no bowl games for the first time in years.
Volunteer fans clamored for a long, long time that playing a game as big as the Florida game early in the season was definitely a Big Orange disadvantage. They only had to point to the 2001 match-up as evidence. That year, the game was postponed due to Hurricane Katrina and rescheduled until the end of the year. The Vols won that one in the “Swamp”, and had they not stubbed their toes against LSU in the SEC Championship game, they would have played for a National Championship.
In looking at the Tennessee schedule for this season, one finds the game against Florida set for Oct. 4, at Neyland Stadium. Believe it or not, this game is still very important; only the stakes are different.
Both teams can forget about an SEC East title, at least for a year or so. Though both teams will be better than last year, the winner of this year’s game on Oct. 4, will very likely be going to a bowl game. Tennessee’s schedule is tougher than Florida’s but it is always tougher. As I scan the entire Vol schedule, I can see just five games that the Big Orange will be favored to win. (Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Vanderbilt) They need six wins to be bowl eligible so they need at least one upset win to go bowling.
The Vols contest against the Gators comes after back-to-back road games against top ten teams. (Oklahoma and Georgia) Tennessee will probably be 2-2 when the Gators come to Knoxville and that would be a great time to snap Florida’s nine game winning streak. A tenth straight loss to the Gators doesn’t mean the Vols won’t go to a bowl game, but it will make it very difficult to finish 6-6.
Tennessee fans can take heart in the big turn-around made by the Auburn Tigers in 2013. First year head coach Gus Malzahn took a team with a losing record the year before to the BCS National Championship Game; a game that the Tigers were just a play or two away from winning. There is a lot of talent coming into the Tennessee program in 2014, but I don’t know if there is enough to have a turn-around like Auburn’s.
Simply by experience, the Vols should be better at quarterback and with the addition of highly-regarded Jalen Hurd at running back they should be considerably better on offense. Defense is still a big question mark and a lot of true freshmen will have to step up and play well quickly.
Coach Phillip Fulmer used to refer to his teams’ lack of success against the Gators, as being, “all puckered up.” That shouldn’t be the case anymore. Neither team has the swagger they once had; but it is still a very, very big game; puckered up or not.
Randy Smith has been covering sports on radio, television and print for the past 45 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has written two books, and has continued to free-lance as a play-by-play announcer. He is currently teaching Broadcasting at Coahulla Creek High School near Dalton, Ga.
His career has included a 17-year stretch as host of the Kickoff Call In Show on the University of Tennessee’s prestigious Vol Network. He has been a member of the Vol Network staff for thirty years.
He has done play-by-play on ESPN, ESPN II, CSS, and Fox SportSouth, totaling more than 500 games, and served as a well-known sports anchor on Chattanooga Television for more than a quarter-century.
In 2003, he became the first television broadcaster to be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame. Randy and his wife Shelia reside in Hixson. They have two married children, (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith.) They have three grandchildren, Coleman, Boone and DellaMae.
To contact Randy: firstname.lastname@example.org