Florida and Tennessee Football fans should both enjoy Saturday’s game for one reason that may have flown under the radar this week. It will be the last of its kind.
With a 12-team playoff set to debut next season, there will never be as much at stake in the annual September matchup between the Vols and Gators as there is this season. If Tennessee Football loses in The Swamp on Saturday, the Vols would have to win the remainder of their games to ensure a spot on the College Football Playoff, which now consist of four teams.
The same could be said for Florida, but at 1-1, the Gators don’t have those sort of expectations. An SEC team could still get in a four-team playoff, but with the conference in a down year, that team would need a ton of help.
If you’re old enough, and I am, you surely remember when the season was all but over for Tennessee Football if they lost to Florida in September. The Vols likely couldn’t win the SEC East, SEC and certainly not a national title with an early loss to their hated rivals to the south.
A loss to Florida meant the Vols would have to hope that the Gators would lose two SEC games to even win the East since Florida would win the tiebreaker if it lost just an SEC game to another team. That won’t be the case any longer.
Those games in the 1990s and 2000s that meant so much will become a thing of the past. Tennessee Football and Florida can lose to one another early in the season and still easily qualify for a 12-team College Football Playoff and play for a national title. That’s bittersweet.
It’s a shame that the Tennessee-Florida game won’t feel like a college football Super Bowl in September. It’s a shame that the game won’t be the focus of the college football world for a week – or even the entire month. However, that’s the bad side. There’s a more positive take on the matter.
Losing the Tennessee-Florida game won’t be like it used to. It won’t be as much of a gut punch, and while there’s less on the line, there will be more to play for, even for the losing team in the duel between the Vols and Gators.
Some will say that that’s not how college football is supposed to be, and they have a point. However, there were many years that Tennessee and Florida may have been the best two teams in the nation and the losing team, often Tennessee, would never get a sniff of a championship because it lost a game in September.
While the regular season matchup between the Gators and Vols won’t have quite the same allure, don’t we want to see the best teams playing for it all at the end of the season? I do.
That happened in 2001 when the Tennessee-Florida game was pushed to December because of the tragedies that occurred on Sept. 11 that year. The game had a playoff atmosphere at the end of the season. UT won, and there was elation that they had “advanced” before falling to LSU in the SEC Championship Game. It was a playoff-feel then, and as of next season, that will be the norm.
There will still be plenty to play for in the regular season with the new College Football Playoff format even though it won’t be like it used to be. Teams with losses will be playing for home-field advantage or a bye. That should be viewed as progress. The changes should retain the importance of regular season games. However, Tennessee-Florida will never be as important as it will be on Saturday.