Any other year, the possibility that Tropical Storm Gabrielle might turn The Swamp into The Ocean on the day of the Florida-Tennessee game would have made headlines throughout SEC country. Any other year, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley would have been badgered for hourly updates on the condition of the field. Any other year, sports radio talkers would have spent hours debating how the forecasted deluge might affect Florida quarterback Rex Grossman's throwing or Tennessee defensive tackle John Henderson's pass rush.
But on Sept. 15, 2001, none of that mattered. Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium stood TV-ready, but no cameras came. The nation had far more important concerns than who would win the SEC's Eastern division.
As life began to return to normal, Southerners once again turned their attention to football. Because Florida's and Tennessee's schedules didn't allow for a make-up date, the SEC moved its championship game back a week and set the annual clash of the Volunteers and Gators for Dec. 1. This move would answer a question SEC fans had asked for several years: What would happen if the biggest game on the conference schedule were played on the last weekend of the regular season instead of the third?
For the first nine years of the 12-team, two-division SEC, the Florida-Tennessee clash loomed over all others despite its anticlimactic place on the calendar. At the time, either the Gators or the Volunteers had won the East division title every year since the league split in 1992. In seven of those nine seasons, the team that won the head-to-head matchup won the division. But because the game was played in mid-September, the division race often ended before it began.
In 2001, Florida and Tennessee each came into the game with 9-1 overall records and 6-1 SEC records, but no one outside Knoxville -- and few on Rocky Top -- thought of the teams as equals. Gators coach Steve Spurrier considered the 2001 group one of his best Florida teams. Most of the nation considered the Gators the only team capable of challenging Miami for the national title. Florida had dominated; its average margin of victory in its six SEC wins was 37.3 points. Tennessee, meanwhile, had squeaked by in many of its wins. The Vols' average margin of victory in SEC wins was 12.8 points.
As Dec. 1 approached, the stakes were clear. The winner would be the favorite to win the SEC title and face Miami for the national title in the Rose Bowl. "There is no other week after this. You win or you go home," fifth-year Gators safety Marquand Manuel said the preceding Tuesday. "They could talk Rose Bowl or whatever they want, but there is no other week after this." A day earlier, Tennessee defensive end Will Overstreet had set the stage in even more succinct terms: "If they need a pep talk, they're dead."
The Vols got a pep talk anyway from Coach Phillip Fulmer, but not before one final bit of gameday disrespect pushed them over the edge. While watching television at their hotel in nearby Ocala, Fla., Tennessee players saw one commentator after another pick the Gators, whom Las Vegas oddsmakers had installed as 18-point favorites. "They gave us no chance at all," former Tennessee tailback Travis Stephens recalled this September. "Once they did that, it was like the hotel erupted. ... Everybody just ran around screaming in the halls."
By the time they got to The Swamp, the Vols were furious. In the locker room, the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Henderson scowled and swayed as Fulmer delivered his pregame address. "I don't know how many people in this country believe," Fulmer said. "That really doesn't matter, either. It only matters what the men in this room believe. ... Those guys put their jocks on just like you do. Those guys like the same girls that you guys like. Everything's the same. It gets back down to who wants to win it the most."
Beneath the stadium's southeast corner, the Vols' voices rumbled as they recited Gen. Robert Neyland's game maxims. After promising to carry the fight to their opponent for 60 minutes, they gathered in the tunnel. Above them, the crowd roared like a jet engine. "That stadium is the loudest stadium, college or pro," Stephens said. "I've never been in a stadium as loud as Florida's stadium. ... LSU is pretty loud. Georgia is pretty loud. But there's nothing like Florida."
The noise didn't bother Stephens, who gashed the Gators early and often. Stephens had carried Tennessee's offense in the early season, but the Vols had relied more on the passing game as the season moved forward. Receiver Kelly Washington, a former minor league baseball player whose high school highlights had arrived almost like magic in assistant Larry Slade's mailbox a year earlier, had developed into a star. Meanwhile, receiver Donte Stallworth's return from an early season wrist injury had given Tennessee another deep threat. So opponents had adjusted their gameplans away from stuffing Stephens. That proved to be Florida's biggest mistake. Using mostly a basic zone play, Stephens ran for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
The 5-9, 190-pound back showed no fear. On a critical fourth-and-one play early in the fourth quarter, Stephens raised his palms to the sky and begged the Florida crowd for more noise. The Gators, riding a 362-yard passing day from Grossman, led 23-21 when the Vols lined up near midfield. Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen gained three yards on a naked bootleg to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Stephens ripped off a 34-yard run to set up a two-yard Jabari Davis touchdown run.
Tennessee wouldn't trail again, but Grossman wouldn't let the Gators fall easily. With 1:10 remaining, he capped a 66-yard drive with a two-yard pass to Carlos Perez to slash Tennessee's lead to two. Henderson flushed Grossman left on the two-point conversion try, and the sophomore's pass flew wide right of receiver Jabar Gaffney. Moments later, Tennessee tight end John Finlayson corralled Florida's onside kick to seal the win.
As crushed Florida fans streamed toward the exits, Clausen climbed a ladder and conducted the Pride of the Southland Band in one more rendition of Rocky Top. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth regaled reporters with one-liners. "It's The Swamp, I guess," Haynesworth said, "but we made it into a little old pond today." On the flight back to Knoxville, the Vols partied. Stephens, his body battered by 19 carries, closed his eyes. Tennessee would go on to lose the SEC title game to LSU the following week, but at that moment, the Vols enjoyed a dream come true. "I know I slept good," Stephens said.