On a blisteringly hot Friday afternoon two years ago, Peyton Manning stood outside Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and looked at the future through innocent eyes. A promising sophomore who the next day would start for Tennessee against Florida in the first truly big game of his brief career, Manning envisioned stepping into the world he had dreamed about since he was a child listening to rebroadcasts of his father's renowned career at Mississippi. "I can't wait to get out there," he said that afternoon, sweating through his sport coat despite a shower after the customary light practice on enemy turf. "I want to run through the tunnel for warmups and hear people yell, 'Manning, you suck!' and 'Tennessee sucks.' I want to hear that. I came to Tennessee to play in this kind of game." He was a kid then, 19 years old, beaten just once as a starter in 10 games. Anything was possible.
Manning returns to Gainesville on Saturday as the most famous player in the college game, a polished quarterback who turned down the chance to be the first pick in April's NFL draft so that he could play a fourth year at Tennessee. He is also an accomplished student, having earned a B.S. (speech communications) in three years with a 3.6 grade point average. He signs autographs, speaks to schoolchildren, visits hospitals and throws the deep sideline route. Last week when Tennessee students camped out waiting for fewer than 800 tickets to go on sale for this year's Florida game, Manning bought 20 pizzas for those at the back of the line. He is everything that college football purports to be but seldom is. He is something else too. He is the punch line to some of Steve Spurrier's best jokes.
I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.
The stand-up routine started after the Tennessee-Florida game in 1995. The Volunteers were brilliant for nearly a half, sprinting to a 30-14 lead before disintegrating in a 62-37 loss, a defeat so humiliating that it made an 11-1 season and a Citrus Bowl victory over Ohio State seem inconsequential. One year later Tennessee attracted an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608 to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and seemed to marshal the support of the entire state for Florida's visit. Less than five minutes into the second quarter Florida led 35-0, and by halftime Manning had thrown four interceptions en route to another blowout of comic proportions. The game finished 35-29, as misleading a final score as has ever been recorded. (Tennessee players and coaches often claim that they simply came up short in a furious and noble comeback, but Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops said last week, "If that's the way they want to look at it, fine, but we definitely pulled the dogs off.") Tennessee went 10-2 and again won the Citrus Bowl.
September 21, 1997
In the off-season, at Salisbury steak and rubber-chicken dinners with Florida booster clubs, coach Spurrier teed up his A material and unloaded on Tennessee.
I heard they just hung a new sign outside the Citrus Bowl in Orlando: WINTER HOME OF THE TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS.
Yeah, that stadium up in Knoxville sure was loud last year. Then the game started.
You know you can't spell Citrus without U-T.
Spurrier sat behind his desk in Gainesville last week and issued a timid disclaimer. "I say those things at Gator clubs because Gators like to hear them," he said. "If [Tennessee coach] Phil Fulmer wants to go on his Big Orange caravan and say funny things about the Gators, that wouldn't bother me one little bit. Besides, I don't make those jokes if there's any media in the audience." He paused. "Usually I don't, anyway." In fact this year he often did just that.
Spurrier delights in tweaking Tennessee for its ability to beat nearly every other team in the country and lose to Florida without a fight, despite making the Gators the focal point of its season. His jokes are painful to Vols fans and players but hilarious to everybody else for the same reason: The jokes strike so close to the truth.
That truth lands on Saturday at Manning's feet. It makes for a good sound bite to say that he came back to win the Heisman Trophy. That assertion is also wrong. "I respect the Heisman, don't get me wrong, but I learned about individual awards last year," says Manning. "I had one off half [against Florida, naturally], and I went off the books, finished eighth [in the Heisman balloting]." He was only third-team All-America, finishing behind Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel of Florida and Jake Plummer of Arizona State. It makes for another good sound bite to say that Manning came back just to beat Florida. Wrong again. "It's hard for anybody to beat Florida," Manning says. "I came back to be a senior."
Says Manning's father, Archie, "He's so tired of people telling him that how his whole career will be remembered depends on this one game." That would be too superficial for Peyton, too rooted in some quick-cut, pop-cultural analysis. Peyton Manning. Great player. Couldn't beat Florida. Somebody else's analysis. For him, his career is a montage of many games, and the Gator thing is intensely personal and emotional. "I just want to win so badly," Manning says. "Football is all about team and all about winning. I remember reading something Jimmy Connors said, that he hated losing more than he loved winning. That's me. I want to win this year more than anybody else in the country. I guarantee you that. This isn't just another game, it's huge. It's different from every other game."
Not for his legacy. Not for a bronze trophy. Not because Spurrier makes jokes, but because the opponent is Florida, and because score will be kept.
Manning will be asked to carry a heavy load this time. The tradition of college football is that if a team bangs away at a powerful opponent long enough, that team will someday win. Colorado eventually beat Nebraska in the mid-'80s. Florida State eventually beat Miami in the early '90s. Ascension is not so automatic with Tennessee. The Vols had a terrific shot in '95 with a veteran offensive line, a superb running back (Jay Graham, who finished the season with 1,438 yards but, alas, fumbled twice against Florida) and a dangerous wideout in Joey Kent. They had the Gators beat and messed up. Last year they didn't compete until far too late. The line on Tennessee's graph is running in the wrong direction.
There was some cause for Volunteer hope this year because Florida lost Wuerffel and wideouts Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard to the NFL. The Gators appeared to miss the trio while struggling to a season-opening 21-6 victory over Southern Mississippi, but on Sept. 6 Florida crushed Central Michigan 82-6 in the type of mismatch that has in past seasons heralded further offensive efficiency against better teams. "I call it a confidence-builder," says Spurrier. Junior Jacquez Green, the one returning wideout, and sophomore Jamie Richardson aren't Anthony and Hilliard, but with 17 catches between them in two games, for five touchdowns, they aren't exactly Regis and Kathie Lee either.
There are new wrinkles on offense as well. Junior fullback Terry Jackson has caught six passes for three touchdowns, and two tailbacks--senior Fred Taylor (207 yards) and Bo Carroll (175 yards), a freshman who has supplanted Green as the fastest man on the squad--have formed an effective ground game. The one wild card is sophomore quarterback Doug Johnson, Wuerffel's replacement. He was nervous and spotty against Southern Mississippi but threw seven touchdown passes in the first half against Central Michigan, in a game that even Johnson said was "like a scrimmage, basically." If Tennessee is looking for a soft spot, it could be Johnson's inexperience and inconsistency. Wuerffel was a machine.
Meanwhile, Stoops's defense has embraced his year-old attack system and has swiftly ascended to rank among the best in the country. Fred Weary and converted running back Elijah Williams are ruthless bump-and-run cornerbacks, and the front seven--despite the loss of sophomore tackle Reggie McGrew, who tore a ligament in his right knee on Aug. 30--is possibly the strength of the team. "Those guys," said Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. "They're all so good up there you could just switch the jersey numbers around and nobody would notice." In all, confidence abounds in Gainesville.
"It's not going to happen for Tennessee," says Taylor. "Just not going to happen."
"We told some of their guys during track season last year, they don't have enough speed," says Green.
"I'm sure it sounded good to Peyton, standing up there at his press conference, talking about coming back," says Weary. "But now he's actually got to come to the Swamp. That's real. And we're not giving anything to him free."
There is no such bold talk from Knoxville, where Fulmer, a week and a half before the game, refused to make certain players available for interviews with SI, fearing that they would provide Florida with "bulletin-board material." There's nothing wrong with caution, but in Tennessee's case, caution verges on paranoia. When playing Florida in recent years, Tennessee has proved painfully fragile. "One thing goes wrong, they blow up," says Weary.
By limiting access, Fulmer was also telling his team that the game is bigger than life. One of the last major college coaches to take this approach was Ohio State's John Cooper, who before last November's game against rival Michigan made just four players available for interviews because he feared that inflammatory comments made by Buckeyes wideout Terry Glenn might have motivated Michigan's upset win the previous year. Ohio State went on to play tight and lost again. Tennessee already plays tight against Florida.
True, this game has outsized value. Florida and Tennessee are the power programs in the SEC East, playing on the third weekend in September. "Our attitude is, 'If we don't beat them, nobody else will,'" says Cutcliffe. That has held true for four consecutive years and four consecutive Tennessee losses. Spurrier's take on the bulletin board, meanwhile, is dramatically different: "After my comments last year about Florida State beating up on Danny Wuerffel [in the game before the SEC championship], the Seminoles were supposed to really clobber the Gators because they were so mad," says Spurrier, whose team then beat Florida State, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. "You didn't hear too much about that after the game. Old-time coaches used to think talk was part of the game."
Fulmer had a simple explanation: "Before we can talk anymore, we've got to win."
Despite Florida's confidence, it is not the same team that played for the national title in '95 and '96, and Tennessee looks similarly diminished. The Vols haven't found a running back to effectively replace Graham or a receiver to replace Kent. Junior wideout Peerless Price has made a stunning recovery from a broken right fibula suffered in the spring game but still hasn't fully recouped his 4.3 speed or his timing. Tennessee's wideouts, particularly senior Marcus Nash, Manning's most reliable target, will need to be superb to escape Florida's bump-and-run. "Against Stoops's defense, our timing is everything," says Manning. "Our guys have to get off the line and into their routes."
Tennessee's defense gave up 400 passing yards and 21 second-half points to UCLA on Sept. 6, which translates to the Gators' scoring roughly 17 touchdowns. Senior cornerback Terry Fair, the Vols' best man-to-man defender, is nursing a slight shoulder separation from the UCLA game; it would be a devastating loss if he can't play. Senior linebacker Leonard Little must play like the NFL sack specialist he is projected to be. None of the Vols can quit on the field, as they did in Gainesville two years ago.
In the end it comes back to Manning. His talent is so surpassing that he alone is capable of deciding the game on the strength of his own work, and it would surely be the single, heroic performance that would cement his place in college football history--even if that is not what he seeks. If he isn't great, Tennessee has little chance to win, and the vulgar chants that Manning welcomed two years ago might just rain down on the Swamp. Worse yet, they will ring just true enough to hurt.