Vols hope to make Florida-Tennessee football rivalry meaningful again

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Henry To'o To'o's recovery of a Kyle Trask fumble midway through the first quarter served as one of the rare highlights for Tennessee during last year's 34-3 loss to Florida in Gainesville. The Gators have won 14 of the past 15 series meetings entering this weekend's matchup in Knoxville.

Within the first 10 years of the Southeastern Conference championship game for football, five of the six Western Division members at that time earned the opportunity to compete for the title.

It was a very different story in the East, where Florida and Tennessee shared a stranglehold and repeatedly played the league's most meaningful game of the regular season.

The Gators and the Volunteers were the SEC's top two programs throughout the 1990s, and the magnitude of their annual clash spilled into the 2000s as well. Tennessee defeated Florida in both 2003 and 2004, when current Vols sophomore running back Eric Gray had just worked his way out of diapers.

"When I was growing up, my dad was a big college football guy and always talked about it," Gray said this week. "He still talks about games like Tennessee-Florida. When we were talking about schools when I was being recruited, he was telling me how the Tennessee-Florida rivalry and the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry were big rivalry games that you want to play in and do well in, because everybody in the country will be watching.

"It means a lot to everyone in this program. The Tennessee-Florida rivalry game is something you come here to play for. It's a big game that everyone will be watching on CBS at 3:30. I love it."

When Florida hired Urban Meyer to replace Ron Zook after the 2004 season, the Gators seized control of this matchup and have won 14 of the past 15 meetings heading into Saturday's showdown in Neyland Stadium. With the No. 6 Gators (7-1) - who can clinch their first East title since 2016 with a triumph - having been installed as 17-point favorites over the Vols (2-5), this year's game is not expected to reverse the trend.

This will be the third squaring off between Florida coach Dan Mullen and Tennessee counterpart Jeremy Pruitt, with Mullen's Gators having cruised the past two years by the combined count of 81-24.

"I've personally never played a Tennessee team that was competitive against us, but it's Tennessee-Florida," Gators junior linebacker James Houston said.

Florida's current ownership of this series included seven consecutive double-digit wins from 2007-13, and there were also three gut-wrenching defeats for the Vols in a four-year stretch that sandwiched Tennessee's 38-28 victory in 2016.

Tennessee took a 9-0 lead into the fourth quarter of the 2014 matchup in Knoxville, but Treon Harris became a one-hit wonder for the Gators by replacing struggling quarterback Jeff Driskel and rallying Florida to a 10-9 triumph. Then there were the 2015 and 2017 games at the Swamp, which the Gators pulled out with staggering 63-yard touchdown passes.

Will Grier and Antonio Callaway provided the heartache with 1:26 remaining in Florida's 28-27 comeback in 2015, and it was Feleipe Franks and Tyrie Cleveland connecting with no time left to propel the Gators to a 26-20 win three years ago.

"It's all about us playing Tennessee this year and their team against our team," Mullen said. "Stuff doesn't really carry over. Last year's game has no effect on this one. The year before has no effect, and this year's game won't have any effect on next year's game, so it's about our preparation and our execution on Saturday."

Mullen certainly has the Gators headed back toward the elite status they enjoyed under Steve Spurrier and Meyer, but Florida also hired and fired two coaches - Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain - who went a combined 6-1 against the Vols. It's up to Tennessee to make this a rivalry again; otherwise the greatness of this once dynamic matchup will remain in yesteryear.

"I've always wanted to beat them," Vols senior receiver Josh Palmer said. "I never really understood the rivalry when I first came here as a freshman, but throughout the years I've grown to dislike Florida, but in a friendly and competitive way."

photo AP photo by Sean Rayford / From left, Tennessee quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano, J.T. Shrout and Harrison Bailey gather as the Vols warm up for their season opener Sept. 26 at South Carolina.

Is it Bailey time?

Pruitt didn't announce Harrison Bailey as this week's starting quarterback during his appearance on Wednesday's SEC teleconference, but he did guarantee playing time for the freshman for the first time entering a game this season. Bailey has appeared in the fourth quarter of losses to Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn, with the Vols trailing by multiple scores on each occasion.

"Harrison will definitely play Saturday, but to what extent we haven't decided yet," Pruitt said. "I feel like that in the three games he's played in, the situations were probably favorable to him at the time based off the score, but I thought he handled himself pretty well. He continues to improve, and the more practice time that he gets, the more comfortable he is in the system and with his surroundings."

Next men up

More playing opportunities were created Tuesday after the arrest and dismissal of redshirt junior linebacker Kivon Bennett, who was pulled over on Neyland Drive and was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of a loaded handgun.

"Tyler Baron has really played well for us and has played more and more each week," Pruitt said when asked Wednesday about filling Bennett's role. "Roman Harrison played really well early in the season, and he's been banged up for several weeks, but the off weeks we've had here have given him a chance to be healthy. We also have Morven Joseph."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.