Combs’ Corner: A trip down football’s memory lane

Since 2006, the Southeastern Conference has flexed its mighty muscle on the world of college football. These stats tell it all.

SEC teams have won nine of the past 12 national championships. Between 2006 and 2012, the conference won seven straight championships, and during that span four different SEC teams took home the hardware.

But longtime football followers will remember a time not too long ago when the conference was much less dominant. In the 1990s, the SEC was a two-team race between Florida and Tennessee. Their marquee matchup, which took place on the third Saturday of September, always came with top 10 rankings, SportsCenter highlight reels, and lots of drama.

Florida vs. Tennessee.

Steve Spurrier vs. Phil Fulmer.

Danny Wuerrfel vs. Peyton Manning.

In those days, it simply didn’t get much better than that. Even if you are not a fan of the Gators or Volunteers, you tuned in to watch the annual clash between these two heavyweights. You did so because the stakes were extremely high.

The Gators or Volunteers won every conference championship between 1993 and 2000. It was pretty much guaranteed that the winner of the UF-UT game would ultimately advance to the SEC championship game against an SEC West opponent, while the losing team would receive the consolation prize of playing in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

That’s why Steve Spurrier, the master play-caller and master annoyer, came up with his favorite jab: “You can’t spell CiTrUs without UT.”

Of course, Tennessee fans got a few jabs in of their own when the rivalry was officially born in 1990. In that game, the Volunteers crushed the Gators 45-3, handing Spurrier what would be the most lopsided loss of his Gator coaching career.

The popular joke after that game: “If it’s 2:15 in Knoxville, what time is it in Gainesville?”

Answer: “45 to 3.”

There were plenty of other memorable games. In 1995, sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning led his Volunteers to what seemed like an insurmountable 30-14 lead. Then the unthinkable happened. Florida reeled off 48 unanswered points, defeating the Vols 62-37. That Florida team went on to play Nebraska in the national championship game, while the 11-1 Vols defeated Ohio State in—you guessed it—the Citrus Bowl.

Perhaps the most exciting game occurred in 2001. That year, the game was postponed to December due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here’s what was on the line. The winner would face LSU in the SEC championship game, and a victory in that game for either team (both had one loss at that point) would’ve meant a date in the national championship game against the Miami Hurricanes.

The game lived up to its hype. Ultimately, Tennessee running back Travis Stephens ran around, through, and between the Gator defense, amassing 226 yards in a 34-32 Volunteer victory. For UT coach Phil Fulmer, it was his first victory in Gainesville. For Steve Spurrier, it was his last game at the fabled Swamp. One month later, he announced that he was leaving UF to become the head coach of the Washington Redskins.

That game marked the end of the rivalry’s heyday. Spurrier and his high-flying offense were gone, and the Gators endured some difficult seasons under his successor, Ron Zook, who was fired in 2004. Tennessee went on to lose against LSU in the SEC championship game that year and began declining under Phil Fulmer. After losing seasons in 2005 and 2008, Fulmer was fired at Tennessee.

The rivalry may not be what it once was, but for diehard college football fans who appreciate watching two goliaths do battle, the memories will last a lifetime.