Will Heupel’s team succeed where others have failed?
By: Zac Strickland
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
It is Florida week. The energy on Rocky Top is different during Florida week. It generally comes with equal parts excitement and dread. Excitement for the opportunity to gain an early leg up in the division, triumph against a despised rival, and derail their season early. Dread because far too often, the exact opposite has happened.
The Gators have been a largely pedestrian program since the Tim Tebow era ended in 2009. Their overall performance hasn’t been quite as ghastly as Tennessee’s during that time period, but like UT, they have cycled through failed coaches, lost many games to less talented teams, and struggled to consistently put a quality product on the field. Florida has lost three of its last five games against Kentucky, five of its last nine against Missouri, and four of its last nine against South Carolina.
Yet somehow, success against the Gators continues to elude Tennessee.
Outside of a lone 2016 win, one must go back to 2004, when Ron Zook was Florida’s coach, to find the next-most recent Volunteer victory in the series.
And of all the opponents Tennessee has struggled against lately, none have caused as much fallout between head coaches, fans, and administration at Tennessee, as has Florida.
The Role of Florida in the Downfall of Tennessee Teams and Coaches
After early-career struggles to beat the Gators, one of UT’s most decorated coaches, Phillip Fulmer, won four of seven between 1998 and 2004. However, he lost his last four games in the series, and back-to-back blowout losses to Florida, 59-20 in 2007 and 30-6 in 2008, indicated that the Vols were falling far behind the Gators in the SEC hierarchy. This was a major contributor to Fulmer’s eventual firing at the end of 2008.
Lane Kiffin promised that Vol fans would be “singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida”, but he never stayed around long enough to fulfill that promise, losing his only contest 23-13 in 2009 before later bolting to USC.
Derek Dooley got off to a shaky start as Tennessee’s head man in 2010-11, but optimism built headed into the 2012 season, as the talented offense hoped to show things would be different going forward. That is, until Florida came to Neyland and exposed the Vols as frauds with College Gameday in attendance. Dooley’s team totally let go of the rope after leading 20-13 in the 3rd quarter, giving up 24 unanswered points to lose 37-20. From there the team nosedived, and Dooley didn’t make it to the season’s end.
No UT coach has ever lost support due to crucial blunders against Florida more than Butch Jones. From 2014-17, Florida was a middling team in a down period for the SEC East, and the emergence of Josh Dobbs and other talented pieces gave the Vols golden opportunities year after year to finally gain the upper hand in this rivalry. Due largely to coaching malpractice by Jones, however, this didn’t happen. UT all but had the 2014 and 2015 games won, until they imploded in the 4th quarters of each game and lost both by a single point (including giving up a late 4th-and-14 for a Gator touchdown in 2015).
Though a thrilling Vol victory in 2016 mercifully ended the 11-game losing streak to Florida, somehow the less talented Gators still ended up with the last laugh, as Jones and Tennessee coughed up the division to UF by senselessly losing to lowly South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Much like 2012 for Dooley, the 2017 loss proved to be the beginning of the end for Jones at Tennessee. Poor play calling, clock management, and laughably bad prevent defense were to blame in a 26-20 loss that ended with a Florida Hail Mary as time expired. Again, the team went in the tank, and Jones was relieved of his duties.
Jeremy Pruitt avoided choke jobs against Florida because his teams were never able to build up a lead to choke away in the first place. After both teams flopped in 2017, Pruitt and Dan Mullen were named as the new head coaches for UT and UF, respectively. They were thought to be on fairly similar rebuild trajectories, and the 2018 game was an early test for both teams. It was a test that Tennessee failed miserably. The Vols committed a dismal six turnovers and were blown out at home 47-21. The rest of Pruitt’s career, against Florida and in general, wasn’t much better. Noncompetitive play and questionable recruiting tactics sealed his demise after three years.
Can Heupel Flip the Script?
After Pruitt’s messy departure gutted the program in early 2021, Heupel was brought in having to pick up the pieces, and excitement and expectations at Tennessee were at an all-time low. Somehow, a mere 20 months and 16 games later, the Vols are knocking on the door of a top 10 ranking, and Vol Nation is buzzing with excitement and… hope?
This renewed optimism, coupled with a Florida team that enters Neyland looking lackluster, has got many people on Rocky Top and around the nation thinking: Maybe things will be different this year.
At the same time, there’s the unshakeable fear that maybe they won’t be. Maybe this is just a setup for another disappointment a la 2012, or 2014, or 2015, or 2017, or 2018.
This is a crossroads game for Tennessee football. Not only is it easily the biggest game of the Josh Heupel era, but it’s also Tennessee’s biggest game in at least six years.
The Vols will be at home, with the support of a deafening, checkerboard-clad crowd, and they appear to be the overall better team. Florida has a first-year coach, a first-year starter at QB who has had accuracy issues so far, and a patchwork defense that South Florida ran all over last week. The matchups on paper seem to mostly lean Tennessee’s way. For the first time in literal decades, UT is a double-digit favorite to knock off the Gators, and most national media is picking the Vols to win, some even by a large margin.
It seems that the only apparent factor on Florida’s side headed into this game is history. Time and time again, Tennessee has found ways to lose games like this, especially against the reptilian bunch from Gainesville. At the same time, history will always play against UT until they take it upon themselves to buck the trends and win a few games, which begs the question: If Not Now, When?
Though this certainly won’t be Tennessee’s, or Josh Heupel’s, last chance to take down Florida, it seems like the best chance they’ve had in a long time, and likely the best chance they’ll have for a long time.
To amplify the significance of this game, there are no other elite matchups in college football this week that would move the needle more than Florida at Tennessee. (Sorry Pat Forde, Duke at Kansas just isn’t quite the same caliber of game.) The traveling national pregame shows from ESPN, Barstool Sports, and Josh Pate, all agree and will be in Knoxville this Saturday morning. In other words, there’s no hiding. All eyes on Tennessee.
The stage is set, and it’s a stage where the Vols historically don’t have a very good track record. Many Tennessee teams, and coaches, have seen everything go sideways because of failure in this game.
It’s possible Josh Heupel and this Volunteer team will fall on their face once again, and eventually meet the same fate. It’s also very possible they use this game as a springboard to restore some balance to the rivalry, and further their ascension back into national relevance and contention.
And that possibility may be as good as ever.