Was it ever this sweet? Was it ever this hyped?
Was Florida ever unbeaten, taking on a highly regarded Tennessee team? Was there ever a Vol quarterback like Joshua Dobbs? Could this game be any bigger?
Well, yes. It could.
Florida and Tennessee both have been good in a lot of years of their history. There have been close games, and lopsided games, and games when each got past the other on the way to the national championship. But was Florida-Tennessee ever any sweeter that it was 20 seasons ago, back in 1996?
More people saw that game – 107,608 – than had ever seen a college game before. The Vols were ranked No. 2 in the nation. Steve Spurrier’s Gators were ranked No. 4. Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning was the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
And the Gators started the game with a wallop.
Oh, you can point to a lot of Manning’s games against the Gators as signature moments. He never beat Florida. But this one seems particuarly apt. Tennessee was favored, after all.
Instead, Florida scored 35 points in the first 21 minutes of the game. Oh, Manning was huge, throwing 65 times and completing passes for 492 yards. But he also threw four interceptions, two of them at the goal line. Looking back, that game probably cost him his best chance at a Heisman. The Vols had only nine yards net rushing that day.
And Florida? The Gators held off Tennessee’s late comeback to win 35-29, and afterward, kept winning. They beat rival FSU in the Sugar Bowl that year for their first national championship game. Danny Wuerffel threw four touchdown passes that day, although his stats weren’t gaudy.
Tennessee finished that season ranked No. 9.