Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
Commentary by David Climer, The Tennessean
The last time ESPN GameDay was in Knoxville, Derek Dooley was an assistant coach under Nick Saban at LSU.
Let that sink in.
It's a reminder of just how far Tennessee football faded into the background over the last several years. GameDay hasn't been to town since Oct. 2, 2004. In the SEC, that's a lifetime.
With ESPN's cast of characters inbound for Saturday's game, it's apparent that UT-Florida is relevant again. It's the first time since 2007 that both teams are ranked in the Top 25.
"This'll be a little new for us," Dooley said. "This is where you want to be."
Since GameDay took the stage in 1993, UT-Florida has been the site seven times. Only one rivalry - Florida-Florida State - has taken center stage more often.
For much of the '90s and into the 2000s, this was one of the premier matchups in the nation. It became a mean, seething rivalry. Then Steve Spurrier would insert the needle and Phillip Fulmer would squirm. Players fired verbal volleys back and forth in the days leading up to the game. To many Vols fans, Florida replaced Alabama as UT's biggest rival.
It was never dull. In 1995, Tennessee twice led by 16 points in the first half but Florida closed with 48 unanswered points in a 62-37 decision. The next year, the Gators jumped ahead 35-0 just five minutes into the second quarter but had to hold on for a 35-29 win.
Another way of looking at it: Peyton Manning never beat Florida. Casey Clausen beat the Gators twice. Go figure.
The luster of the series took a dip when Ron Zook was Florida's coach for three years. In 2008-11, UT's record was a combined 23-27 with Florida stretching its winning streak over the Vols to seven and GameDay lost interest. You couldn't get Lee Corso to town with a seat on a charter flight and a free 20-ounce porterhouse at Ye Olde Steak House.
Now guess who's coming to dinner?
Granted, this isn't quite like the good old days. Once upon a time, this was one of the games that factored into the national-championship chase. This year, it's more about gaining altitude in the SEC East. Baby steps. Baby steps.
In fact, UT-Florida is getting the GameDay crew by default. At the beginning of the season, ESPN figured to set up its stage in Fayetteville, Ark., this weekend. Then Louisiana-Monroe exposed Arkansas as a pretender last Saturday. Suddenly, UT-Florida looked considerably more appealing than Alabama-Arkansas.
"Playing in a game like this is why you come to a school like Tennessee," said Vols junior linebacker Dontavis Sapp. "Everybody likes it when there's so much attention on you and your team. ... It's a chance for us to show how far we've come."
And that's the bottom line. With the season-ending loss to Kentucky last November, Rocky Top hit rock bottom. On Saturday, we'll see just how far the Vols have rebounded.
Clearly, this is the biggest game to date on Dooley's watch. By beating North Carolina State in the opener and taking care of business against Georgia State last week, the Vols deserve the stage.
Welcome back, UT-Florida. It's been awhile.