The SEC season gets throttled into high gear Saturday in Knoxville, when the University of Tennessee Volunteers play host to the Florida Gators. If history is any indication in this heated rivalry, now known as the "Third Saturday in September," the implications of this epic battle are monumental for the winner and devastating for the loser. In the last 20 years, Florida has won the SEC Championship 8 times compared to 3 for Tennessee. Neither team, with the lone exception of the 1997 Vols, with some guy at quarterback named Peyton Manning, has ever lost this game and gone on to win the SEC Championship Game, let alone a National Championship. No other regular season game has meant more to either team's success in the past 20 years. It's an early crash for one of these programs, making it nearly impossible to finish the season on top.
In the 18 years since the SEC was divided into two divisions, the East and the West, the Eastern Division has been represented by either the Gators or the Vols, an astounding 15 times, including 10 straight years from 1992- 2001. The only other representative for the East in the history of the SEC Championship Game is the Georgia Bulldogs, who have turned the trick 3 times.
Since the inception of the SEC Championship Game in 1992, the winner of the Tennessee - Florida game has gone on to win the SEC title, a staggering 9 times. But that's not all, the national implications of this game have been historic as well. Of those 9 SEC Championships, the winner went on to win the National Championship in 4 of those seasons. Obviously, Florida has done the heavier lifting, winning the SEC title 7 times, compared to 2 for Tennessee and the National Championship, 3 times, in 1996, 2006, and 2008, compared to the Vols' perfect,13-0, National Championship season in 1998.
The rivalry between the two teams really just got started in 1990, when Steve Spurrier took over as Florida's Head Coach. Spurrier, a Tennessee native, has always been a thorn in the side of Volunteer fans, whether it be on or off the field. Spurrier once said mockingly about the Vols inability to get to a premier bowl game, "You can't spell Citrus (Bowl) without a U and a T." In recent years, Urban Meyer has had Tennessee's number, running his record to 5-0 against the Vols. But it hasn't always been this way. Prior to 1992, Tennessee held an all-time record versus Florida of 14 wins against only 7 defeats. Florida's great run through the last 20 years has given them a slight edge at 20-19 against the Vols. Tennessee still leads the all-time series in Knoxville with 11 victories and 9 defeats against the Gators.
This game is big and has been big for a long time now, but for first year Coach Derek Dooley, it's the biggest game of his young coaching career. The Vols have lost 5 straight to the Gators and are coming off their worst home loss in Neyland Stadium's 89 year history. Coach Dooley's challenge is to refocus his team and give Urban Meyer his first loss at the hands of the Volunteers. After having 3 coaches in the last 3 seasons and all of the turmoil surrounding Tennessee's athletics programs, if any team needs a big win, it's the Vols.
The Gators have struggled early, with John Brantley getting the keys to the Gator offensive machine from Tim Tebow, but Jeffrey Demps is a game-breaker, capable of going the distance at any time. Meyer will have his team fine tuned and ready by the time they get to Knoxville.
The expectations for these two teams is different than in years past. The Vols come in unranked and most fans expecting a 6 or 7 win season. Tennessee is a 2 touchdown underdog coming into the game, but Vol fans have reason to believe in an upset, due to Florida's early offensive struggles. Florida is ranked 10th in the AP and their focus is on winning their 4th National Championship.
The road to SEC glory will most assuredly come to an end for the loser of this game, as for the winner, well that's another story. The road will still have plenty of hazardous stops along the way, but it sure will look much clearer now. Set the GPS to, 1 Georgia Dome Drive, Atlanta, GA 30313. Lay on the gas, but be careful along the way.
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