Stakes have changed, but Gators-Vols rivalry still has drama

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The annual September matchup between Florida and Tennessee doesn’t have the same meaning it carried back when the game usually decided the SEC East title.

But what this series has lost in national relevance, it has gained in suspense.

Florida beat Tennessee 26-20 last year on a 63-yard Hail Mary pass as time expired . In each of the three Tennessee-Florida games before that, the winning team trailed by at least nine points in the second half before rallying.

They’ll meet again Saturday at Neyland Stadium as two rebuilding programs with storied histories try to earn their first signature wins under new coaches.

“You’re a prime-time ESPN game, so there’s a lot of people out there (that) still think that it is a big game,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “The feel within the program, I think both programs obviously want to get back to where this has a big (role in or) something to do with who wins the East. I think that always adds to the rivalry, but I still think everybody feels it’s a pretty big game.”

It still may be big, but the stakes have changed.

Either Florida or Tennessee won the SEC East each year from 1992 to 2001. This matchup featured two ranked teams every year from 1990-2007.

“I can remember when I was three years old, this is the rivalry everyone talks about - UT and Florida,” Tennessee center Ryan Johnson said. “This is the game I’ve always loved to play in. When I was a kid, this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Tennessee football player playing Florida at home. This means everything to me. It’s huge.”

Certainly it’s still huge to both programs, but it’s no longer appointment viewing outside the two campuses.

Florida has played in the SEC championship just twice over the last eight seasons (in 2015 and 2016). Tennessee hasn’t reached the SEC championship game since 2007. This marks the third Florida-Tennessee matchup in the last five years to feature two unranked opponents.

Both of these teams won just four games last year. Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) is trying to avoid its first 0-2 start to SEC play since 1986. Tennessee (2-1, 0-0) hasn’t won an SEC game since 2016.

Each team desperately needs a win to show they’re headed back in the right direction. It has particular importance for Tennessee because the Vols have lost 12 of their last 13 meetings with Florida.

“When I was growing up, it was always the first big SEC game of the year,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “When I was growing up, I always loved to watch it - always a lot of passion with both fan bases, a lot of tradition. I’m thankful to have the chance to be a part of it.”

Some other things to watch when Tennessee hosts Florida.

CHAMPIONSHIP REUNION

Tennessee will honor its 1998 national championship team at a pregame ceremony. That team was coached by current Vols athletic director Phillip Fulmer. Mullen spent the 1998 season as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, which lost 34-33 to Tennessee that year.

GATORS’ SPECIAL TEAMS

Florida already has blocked three kicks or punts this year, a remarkable turnaround for a team that had a total of four blocks from 2013-17. Florida scored two special-teams touchdowns last week in a 48-10 rout of Colorado State.

COMMON THREADS

Florida tight ends coach Larry Scott and cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren were Tennessee assistants last year on former Vols coach Butch Jones’ staff. Scott was offensive coordinator and Warren was defensive backs coach. Tennessee co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph was on Florida’s staff the last three seasons.

MULLEN VS. PRUITT

The two head coaches in this game faced off the last two years when Mullen was head coach at Mississippi State while Pruitt was Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Alabama beat Mississippi State 51-3 in 2016 and 31-24 last year.

REESE’S RETURN

Mullen said he’s optimistic that linebacker David Reese will play Saturday after missing Florida’s first three games with an ankle injury. Reese had a team-high 102 tackles last season. Florida running back Malik Davis will miss Saturday’s game after breaking his foot last week against Colorado State.