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What Happened to September’s Biggest Game?

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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From 1993-2001, the winner claimed the SEC East title eight times and the overall SEC title six times. Since the turn of the century, however, the greatest SEC rivalry of the ‘90s has been just another game.

I’m 32.

From my upper elementary school years to my late high school years, there was no bigger September college football game every year than Tennessee vs. Florida. From 1993-2001, the winner claimed the SEC East title eight times and the overall SEC title six times.

Since the turn of the century, however, the greatest SEC rivalry of the ‘90s has been just another game. Florida has controlled the series, having won 11 straight meetings before the Vols finally won last season in Knoxville.

They’ll meet Saturday afternoon in Gainesville (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), but where’s the juice? I live in Tennessee, and the normal vitriol for the hated Gators just isn’t there. Most SEC fans are much more excited to see reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson face reigning national champion Clemson Saturday night than they are for Vols-Gators.

Yes, Hurricane Irma has made us all become a little more numb to the seriousness of a football game, but even had there been no weather issues in Florida earlier this week, this game still would be a far cry from what it once was and what it should be.

How did the buzz for this game plummet from what it was 20 years ago to what it is now? I’ve come up with a few reasons why:

1.  Both fanbases don’t like their head coach.

After four seasons, most Tennessee fans are convinced that Butch Jones is simply a decent football coach who can turn a non-traditional power into a consistent winner. Tennessee has much higher standards, and the clichés, gimmicks and failures on the big stage have caused Big Orange supporters to grow weary of Jones. Despite recruiting well enough to ensure a floor of six or seven wins, nine wins feels like the ceiling for Tennessee under Jones.

At Florida, standards are even higher after a run of seven SEC championships and three national championships in a 16-year stretch spanning from Steve Spurrier to Urban Meyer. The Gators have won the SEC East in Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, but both have come in spite of poor offenses, the side of the ball from which McElwain climbed the coaching ladder. A loss to Michigan in the season opener showed no signs that progress has been made, and the passionate fans of the flagship university in the nation’s most talent-rich state can’t understand why.

2.  We know very little about either team.

Because of the hurricane, Florida has only played one game – the neutral-site loss to Michigan in Week 1. Is the Wolverines defense, which is completely rebuilt from last year’s dominant unit, another top-five unit? Or was Florida’s inability to score on offense after the game’s first drive more due to its own issues than the great play of Michigan? It was a bad start, but one game is too few to draw any major conclusions.

Tennessee had a quirky opener with Georgia Tech, which forced the defense to play an entirely different way than they are accustomed to against the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense. It’s impossible to tell how the Vols will fare against a traditional, balanced offense from their 42-41 triumph. In last week’s rout of FCS foe Indiana State, Tennessee showed nothing, keeping things close to the vest with Florida on deck.

3. It’s probably going to be an ugly game.

Yes, Tennessee’s offense scored 42 points against Georgia Tech, but 14 of those came in overtime, and the Yellow Jackets defense won’t be mistaken for the ’85 Bears anytime soon. No. 1 wide receiver Jauan Jennings is out for the season, and quarterback Quinten Dormady will be making his first road start on Saturday afternoon. The Gators’ quarterback situation is even messier, with both Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire having been ineffective against Michigan.

Adding to the potential for a defensive struggle is mother nature. Irma has moved far away from Gainesville, but Saturday’s forecast isn’t promising with a 60 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms and an already saturated Ben Hill Griffin Stadium field. Could we see a repeat of the 2014 game – a 10-9 Florida win? Let’s hope not.

4. Neither team can win the SEC.

The Alabama machine has caused the rest of the SEC to play for second place. A couple SEC teams have the firepower to knock off the Crimson Tide if things come together perfectly on a given Saturday, but that short list does not include the Volunteers or Gators.

Sure, the winner of this game could win the division, but both are likely to be bludgeoned by Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, which has won the game the last three seasons by an average of 27 points – two of those over Florida. A truly great season at Florida or Tennessee is impossible without a conference title, but the Crimson Tide have rendered that goal unachievable for the immediate future.

5. The streak is over.

It looked as if Florida would make it a dozen straight last year, but Florida’s 21-3 halftime lead evaporated in the second half, as Tennessee scored 35 straight points in a 38-28 victory, its first in the series since 2004.

You would think one team ending the other’s dominance would be good for a rivalry, right? Well, maybe not. Florida fans (and players) can’t run their mouths about the winning streak anymore, and Tennessee fans consequently can’t get mad at Florida fans for talking about it. The trash talk that had helped make this rivalry great has given way to buttoned-up coachspeak. Boring.

There you have it.

1997 it is not. Maybe the two teams will surprise us and produce a classic on Saturday that will have us talking about it well into next week, but the pregame chatter is virtually non-existent. For anyone who remembers the ‘90s, it’s still hard to process, despite the gradual decline of this rivalry since Spurrier left Florida and Phillip Fulmer let things slip at Tennessee.

Clemson-Louisville a bigger game than Tennessee-Florida? Come on. In 1997, Clemson was averaging about seven wins per year, and Louisville was middling in Conference USA playing in an old, rickety minor league baseball stadium.

My, how times have changed.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.