Why this is the last, best chance to reignite Tennessee football vs. Florida rivalry | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Steve Spurrier couldn’t have known it at the time, but when the former Florida football coach offered an idea for Josh Heupel’s rebuild at Tennessee, his words would apply to Billy Napier’s Gators several months later.

I asked Spurrier last fall how Heupel could accelerate the Vols’ rebuild.

Look to the portal, the Head Ball Coach said.

“The transfer portal gives schools the chance to maybe catch up,” Spurrier told me.

In a twist, Florida is now doggedly pursuing transfers under Napier, after the Gators unraveled at warp speed under Dan Mullen, fired in November.

Mullen had not recruited to Florida’s standard. Combine that with the roster turnover that accompanies any coaching change, and the Gators’ depth and talent is not where it needs to be. Napier knows it.

“The University of Florida, you can anticipate us being very aggressive in the portal this spring,” Napier told reporters in late March. "We need players."

If the Vols are ever going to regain an upper hand on the Gators, now is the time.

The Florida-Tennessee rivalry once boiled, but it stopped simmering years ago, in part because the Gators have dominated the series for nearly two decades, and in part because there isn’t a long history or geographical battle lines to fall back on.

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This series became a rivalry because Florida and UT were the best teams going in the SEC East during the 1990s and early 2000s. The rivalry's prominence during that era was aided by Georgia being down. Three is a crowd in the SEC East. In the first 10 years of the SEC Championship, Florida claimed the East’s bid seven times, while the Vols represented the division the other three years. 

Tennessee’s downturn coexisted with Georgia's ascent. In the 14 seasons since UT's last division crown, Georgia has won the East six times, and Florida won it five times.

Spurrier’s endless jabs at Phillip Fulmer and the two coaches' contrasting personalities added spice to this rivalry during its heyday.

Without Spurrier, without Fulmer, and without the Vols being relevant for 15 years, the game became a compulsory matchup masquerading as a rivalry.

Now, though, Tennessee is gaining ground under Heupel. Florida no longer can bank on dunces leading the Vols.

Florida does not boast its typically robust roster, and those soft spots crack the door open for Tennessee to flip the series script. But this window of opportunity may be fleeting. Napier shows signs of building a sturdy foundation, and if the way he elevated Louisiana's talent in four seasons coaching the Ragin' Cajuns is any indication, he'll be a boon for the Gators' recruiting.

Despite finishing 6-7 overall last season, the Gators defeated Tennessee in September, their 16th win in the series’ past 17 matchups. 

Tennessee’s rivalry with Alabama has experienced a similar imbalance, with the Crimson Tide having won 15 straight. At least the Third Saturday in October has the benefit of tradition. Those teams first met on Thanksgiving 1901, when a mob of angry Alabama fans stormed the field to protest the officiating, causing the game to be halted prematurely and declared a tie. Alabama and Tennessee have met 104 times, and fans of an older generation, especially, embrace that rivalry, regardless of series trends.

In contrast to those border state rivals, the Tennessee and Florida campuses are separated by 540 miles, and the teams did not begin playing annually until the 1990s.

As the Vols faded from the spotlight, so did the rivalry, and that de-escalation could become permanent unless Tennessee rebalances the scales soon – especially when you consider these teams might not play annually in the future.

The SEC’s schedule is headed for a change after Oklahoma and Texas begin competing in the league in 2025. It’s no guarantee the Vols and Gators will meet each season following the expansion.

Without annual matchups, this series could cease to be a rivalry altogether – unless it becomes competitive again.

Losing Spurrier’s constant ribbing of the Vols – who could forget his zinger that you can’t spell “Citrus” without the U and the T – hurt this rivalry, and the loss of competitive balance piled on.

Spurrier isn't returning to the Florida sideline, but with the Gators vulnerable and the Vols solidifying, the rivalry could find the competitiveness that had been missing.

This might be the last, best opportunity to reinvigorate what was one of college football’s best rivalries of the ‘1990s.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.