The Tennessee-Florida series is one of the most storied rivalries in college football. As the Volunteers head south to face the Gators this Saturday, we look back 25 years to the Florida game in 1998 with the help of linebacker Eric Westmoreland.
It was Sept. 19, week three of the 1998 season, when the No. 2 Gators visited Neyland Stadium to face off against the No. 6 Vols. Florida had won the last five meetings and was projected to secure their sixth – thanks in part to a strong defense and the absence of former Vols QB Peyton Manning.
The Florida matchup was one that Westmoreland nearly missed.
“Leading up to the game. I got hurt Thursday in practice,” Westmoreland recalled. “I had a real bad ankle sprain.” In doubt as to whether he would be able to play, Westmoreland and the Vols’ staff got to work.
“They came up with a system where I had to spend the night in the training room. We did every hour on the hour of nonstop treatment Thursday night… and all of Friday,” Westmoreland said. “I was actually still on crutches leading up to pregame.”
A rolled ankle wasn’t going to stop him from competing against one of their biggest foes.
“I was heavily taped. I did some running around, so my adrenalin had kicked in,” Westmoreland remembered. “I was able to go out and give it a go.”
Going into week three as the underdog and with quarterback Tee Martin under center, rather than Manning, didn’t faze Westmoreland and his defense. They had been prepping long before September.
“You really have to go back to our summer workouts,” Westmoreland said. “(We were) holding each other accountable, doing a lot of things on our own when the coaches weren’t watching and spending a lot of time off the field with each other.”
And any comparisons to the previous year’s team? The ‘98 crew was much improved, according to Westmoreland.
“We were bigger, we were stronger, and we were definitely faster,” he said. “We knew that we had a great offensive line, some great running backs and receivers.”
“We had to protect Tee (Martin)… to not give him too much on his plate… and then, let our defense be the guys who led the team,” said Westmoreland, who is now a coach at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. “That was our motto. If you can’t score, you can’t win.”
The Vols’ were victorious that Saturday, as they were the entire season, having bested the Gators 20-17 in overtime. A talented Florida offense couldn’t score nearly as often as it would have liked, often stalling close to Tennessee’s endzone, which is why the Gators scored just 17 points against the Vols in a season in which they averaged 31 points per game.
A missed Florida field goal solidified the win in front of a record crowd in Knoxville – many of whom stormed the field in celebration, toppling over goalposts and tearing up the turf.
Westmoreland and his teammates motto proved accurate against Florida and against every team Tennessee played during that magical season – “If you can’t score, you can’t win.”