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Gators-Vols reduced to peripheral game

Diehard SEC enthusiasts, let this soak in for a moment: The college football world cares more about what’s happening in the state of Mississippi than Florida-Tennessee week.

Florida-Tennessee is just another game as two great rivals, who have lost the art of good-natured trash talk that added so much to this game, are unranked and unfit for a playoff run.

Granted, Florida’s nine-game winning streak in the series -- against four different Tennessee coaches -- hasn’t exactly helped it keep national interest. But to see this game moved from the third Saturday in September to a noon ET kick feels wrong.

“When I saw that the time was a noon game, that’s just disrespectful because it’s basically like, ‘You guys hurry up and play, get your game over with, and all the big-money games will be playing at 3:30 and at night time,’” said former Tennessee running back Jabari Davis. “I felt like it was kind of a slap in the face.”

The unfortunate truth is the sport has moved on without this game, and it’s easy to see why.

The disappearance of the iconic coaching matchup of Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer, parity in the East, the decline of both programs and the emergence of the West have put this game on the back burner.

When these teams clashed in the 1990s, they did so as the SEC’s best.

“You look at it and whoever won that game, we felt, was going to go win the SEC,” said Tennessee native and former Florida linebacker James Bates. “It was pretty much fact.”

That’s no longer the case.

“I feel like, ‘My gosh, college football, it’s Florida-Tennessee weekend,” Bates said. “Isn’t this a beautiful thing?’”

Pitted against each other in the East, they were hitting their strides at the perfect time. Florida already had Spurrier, a Tennessee native, and Tennessee was introducing Fulmer, whom Spurrier continuously gigged.

Even with Florida winning seven of 10 in the ‘90s, this game was must-see TV and must-win for the teams.

There were good games, but former Florida receiver Chris Doering isn’t ready to say Tennessee was Florida’s equal.

“I wouldn’t say it was a mutual respect,” Doering said. “We were aware that they were probably the most competitive team in the conference, outside of us, but we felt like we had their number. We felt like we owned them and we felt like we were in their minds.

“The fact of the matter is they always had an excuse and always found a way to let us win that game.”

It’s like the game never truly died.

You had “Faxgate” in 1991, Florida christening Neyland Stadium’s new grass field with a 31-0 win in '94, and Peyton Manning watching his 30-14 second-quarter lead in the Swamp turn into a 62-37 romp by the Gators in '95.

There was Deon Grant’s one-handed interception and Collins Cooper’s missed overtime field goal that gave Tennessee a victory in '98, which stopped a five-game losing streak to Florida and prompted fans to flood the field in Knoxville.

“In a lot of cases for a lot of Tennessee fans, they can lose every game, but if they beat Florida, they’ll be satisfied,” said former Tennessee running back Travis Stephens.

Did Jabar Gaffney really hold on to the ball long enough in 2000?

“Of course he did. Are you kidding me? That was a touchdown,” Doering said.

In 2001 the Vols, 18-point underdogs, stunned arguably Spurrier’s most talented team with a 34-32 victory in which Stephens gashed Florida’s defense for 226 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback Casey Clausen directed the Tennessee band in “Rocky Top” for all of Gator Nation to see -- and hear.

“That was a game that we weren’t expected to win at all,” Stephens said with a laugh. “Nobody gave us a chance at all. It’ll live on for a long time.”

It was a playoff game before playoff games were cool, fashioned with roses -- for a perceived trip to the Rose Bowl -- and cigars in Tennessee’s locker room, and a campus celebration that same night.

“I don’t think I went to bed that night because I was up partying,” Davis said. “That’s when I found out how real Tennessee football was. We were like a rock band coming in preparing for a tour.”

There was plenty of talking, too, but mainly from the Florida side.

Bates wondered aloud to a reporter if Neyland’s record-setting crowd in 1996 left early because it had to watch “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” and later created an alter-ego named Luther Ogle to mock Tennessee fans.

Spurrier dug at Manning, who never beat Florida: I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.

Spurrier coupling Tennessee with the Citrus Bowl: I heard they just hung a new sign outside the Citrus Bowl in Orlando: Winter Home of the Tennessee Volunteers.

Constantly: You know you can’t spell Citrus without U-T.

“For a head coach to come out and talk the way he did, it kinda rubbed you the wrong way, but it’s not like you can get on the field or fight him,” said former Tennessee defensive end Leonard Little.

Added Bates: “As much as I loved to beat them and rub it in to my friends, the fact that the head coach and the leader of the University of Florida football program would add to the misery of all those Tennessee fans for all those years ... by jabbing them and jabbing them, that made it even more fun.”

In fairness to the Head Ball Coach, Tennessee did play in the Citrus Bowl three times from 1993-96.

Saturday’s game comes with limited national gusto, but it’s still special for the opposing sides. With both teams looking to reclaim some pride, Saturday serves as a barometer for both programs.

“For the players in this game, it doesn’t really matter what time it is,” said former Tennessee wide receiver Jayson Swain. “The game could be at midnight, it could be at six in the morning, it can be in a parking lot, it doesn’t matter; it’s Florida-Tennessee. Let’s rumble. Let’s do it.”