SEC on CBS Top 10: No. 9, Dec. 1, 2001 Tennessee at Florida
Steve Spurrier and Phil Fulmer remember the game well. UF falls short in Spurrier's last game at The Swamp despite featuring a loaded team that many thought could win the national title.
The term ‘instant classic’ gets thrown around a lot, but the best games validate that label over time. Those who witnessed a classic game not only remember the glorious snapshots years later, but they can debate them, dissect them, memorialize them. The details are as fresh as that sandwich you just had on your lunch break.
“Yeah, I remember about everything about the game,” said Spurrier via phone from his South Carolina football office, still salty about the 34-32 loss in his last game in the Swamp as Gators coach.
One play in particular -- Florida’s failed two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game with 1:10 left -- elicits a strong reaction from these two.
“They came out of the huddle in that (four-wide) formation -- you talk about puckering up,” said Fulmer via phone on Christmas Eve as he drove to a family gathering.
The implications were huge. The late-September game was postponed to Dec. 1 because of 9/11, so college football was glued to this de facto national quarterfinal between the No. 2 Gators and the No. 4 Volunteers. Winner was off to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game and positioned for a national title run.
Fulmer and Spurrier, who beat up on each other in the SEC East for a decade, agree the game was a wild one. What they don’t agree on was the play of a 5-foot-9 backup cornerback from Nashville named Buck Fitzgerald on that crucial conversion try.
After UT running back Travis Stephens did naughty things to Florida’s defense for 226 yards (Spurrier says it was 225) on 19 carries, the Gators hung tight. UF went 66 yards for a scoring drive capped by Rex Grossman’s touchdown pass to Carlos Perez by the sideline.
Florida needed two more yards, two more points, and it had the perfect matchup to get them. Fitzgerald, a senior cornerback with no starts and 26 tackles in his career, was covering All-American receiver Jabar Gaffney on the outside.
The Gators had the Vols right where they wanted him. Grossman had heated up with 362 yards passing, and Fitzgerald on Gaffney was not the ideal matchup for UT.
This was supposed to be Florida’s moment. As Spurrier recalls, this Florida team was as good as the 1996 championship team. They were loaded. UF was a 17.5-point favorite -- “that surprised the heck out of me,” Fulmer said -- but this group of Gators couldn’t win close games.
Jabar Gaffney couldn’t beat Buck Fitzgerald.
Grossman had to shuffle in the pocket because of Tennessee’s defensive pressure. Gaffney ran “a little out against man to man,” Spurrier said.
Gaffney appeared to get twisted around and Grossman’s pass sailed out of bounds.
“Guy was hanging all over him, but no interference,” Spurrier said.
Fulmer doesn’t remember the play quite like that.
“I thought it was great coverage,” Fulmer said. “It kind of makes up for one in Knoxville where Gaffney dropped the ball and official called it a touchdown.”
Fulmer is referring to Gaffney’s game-winning touchdown in 2000. UT safety Willie Miles might have knocked the ball away as Gaffney tried to get two feet down in the end zone.
But Fulmer was proud of Fitzgerald’s play on Gaffney in The Swamp because he overcame an unfavorable matchup. The win over UF, considered an upset at the time, played to a similar narrative.
No doubt, Fulmer used the 17.5-point spread as easy-bake motivation all week.
It worked. Fulmer remembers the Vols hitting Grossman “a bunch,” resulting in four sacks and several pressures.
“We had never been that kind of underdog to anybody,” Fulmer said. “They were talented, but so were we.”
Spurrier and Fulmer don’t think the game should have come down to a two-point conversion -- for different reasons, of course.
Tennessee had its own failed two-point conversion after one of Jabari Davis’ two second-half rushing touchdowns. The fail almost didn’t matter with the way Stephens, a fearless 5-foot-9 back, ripped through the heart out of UF’s defense all game, including a 34-yarder to set up a second-half touchdown.
As for Spurrier, he remembers moving the ball but settling for too much with Jeff Chandler -- the kicker who made four field goals.
“We moved up and down the field, stymied around the goal line,” said Spurrier in one of the most entertaining 90-second phone messages you’ll ever hear. “Had to kick around two or three little ol’ field goals somehow or another. And just got beat.”
And to think Spurrier’s defense led the conference that year, but “that day, they got on us,” he said.
The game was Spurrier’s last in the Swamp, ending his UF career with an Orange Bowl win over Maryland and a new contract as the Washington Redskins coach.
“Finished No. 3 in the nation, didn’t win anything,” Spurrier said. “That’s sometimes the way it is.”
At least he left Gainesville on a classic.
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