Coming out of the announcement of the SEC schedule today, all eyes were on Week 1 matchups across the league. The Vols will open their 2020 season against South Carolina in Columbia to start the campaign off, but there was an interesting matchup at the end of Tennessee’s schedule that is well worth considering. While the SEC schedule makers did the Vols no favors in terms of additional opponents selected, they did give Tennessee something that their fans have wished for over the last three decades. For the first time since the 2001 season, the Vols will end their season with their annual matchup against Florida.
Going all the way back to games between Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer, each early in their careers at Florida and Tennessee respectively, the Vols and Gators typically open their SEC schedules against one another. In the years when both were national powerhouses, serious players in the national championship picture year in and year out, it always felt strange to usually see the SEC East decided in early September. The matchup was one that always felt as if it should conclude a season, with all the marbles for the SEC East on the line, the winner punching their ticket to Atlanta. Having the game so early in the season was always puzzling, and many Vol fans wanted to see the game played later. Apart from the atmosphere, a later season game would have factored more heavily into home field advantage. While Gainesville is hotter and more humid in early to mid-September than Knoxville, the difference is not that drastic, with Knoxville still being plenty hot enough to create cramps for visitors and the home team alike. Late November, on the other hand, is a vastly different story. Temperatures are considerably colder in Knoxville than Gainesville at the end of the season, and home field advantage because of weather becomes a bigger factor for both teams.
The last time the Vols ended the season with the Gators was 2001, the game postponed due to the attacks on the World Trade Centers on 9/11. That game saw a pair of Top 10 teams square off in the Swamp, and it lived up to all the expectations. The winner was bound for Atlanta, with both teams knowing that a victory in the SEC Title Game would lock them into the BCS National Championship Game. The Gators were heavily favored, but the Vols rode an outstanding performance by Travis Stephens to an upset victory, an SEC East Title, and the satisfaction of defeating Steve Spurrier in his last home game in the Swamp. While no one is expecting that kind of matchup between the two rivals this season, it will be interesting to see if this is something that SEC schedule makers come back to in following years.
For the 2020 edition of the Vols, matching up with the Gators at the end of the season feels like an advantage. Had the Vols stuck to their original schedule and opened with Florida, several positions would have had questions swirling, most importantly, at quarterback. Barring injury, Tennessee should go into their meeting with Florida with their quarterback questions clearly answered. The Vols will also be facing the Gators on Senior Day for a group of seniors that is one of the most respected in recent memory, Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy chief among them. The weather should also be a factor that trends towards the Vols, as this matchup will be in December in the mountains of East Tennessee. Barring massive struggles for the Gators, they should be projected to enter the game against Tennessee as heavy favorites. That said, this change to the schedule has added more intrigue to a matchup that is already circled for both teams every season. Perhaps this could be one of the changes that lasts beyond this strange season.