By Randy Horick
“Tennessee sucks!” Kenneth E. Hirt bellowed matter-of-factly, as if he were stating one of the immutable physical laws of the universe. “They have to face the fact—four years in a row!” He paused for a moment, perhaps waiting for a rebuttal from one of the scores of Orange Bloods in whose midst he sat at Jonathan’s.
No one struck at Kenneth’s bait. So his friend “Bob,” who described himself as a member of the University of Florida class of ’78, cast his own barbed line: “Peyton sucks!” Again, there were no takers.
Bob, who claimed to have received an invitation to meet one or more Vols fans in the parking lot, turned around to savor his beer and his team’s 13-point lead in the annual battle for smak-talk supremacy and, incidentally, the SEC East championship.
The on-field meeting between Tennessee and Florida took place in Gainesville last Saturday. But the action in the sports bars around Nashville throughout the afternoon mirrored the real game to an unusual degree—lots of swaggering pronouncements, many woofed exchanges, followed by incessant and insufferable crowing from one side and angst from the other.
For the past half decade, the psychological warfare between the Gators and the Vols has been just as intense (and infinitely more interesting) than the teams’ gridiron struggles. For four years running, the Vols’ Sugar Bowl plans have come to grief against the Gators, whose fans seem to have adopted the same, self-satisfied leer as their toothy mascot.
Four years of ruinous losses have produced four years of stinging taunts. Much of the bombast, in calculated disregard for coaching etiquette, has been served up by Florida’s Steve Spurrier (“You can’t spell Citrus without U-T”), and Gator fans have followed his example with great relish.
The more the Vols have redoubled their resolve to win, the more Florida’s boosters have adopted the mocking, can’t-touch-us tone of Heckle and Jeckle. In the face of such verbal flayings, UT fans have come to resemble Margaret Dumont after an encounter with Groucho, flummoxed and stewing, regarded by onlookers with a mix of derision and pity.
For three weeks, the verbal trash had been piling up in anticipation of this year’s Tennessee-Florida free-for-all. While UT fans became as wild-eyed for vengeance as Captain Ahab, the demeanor of their Gator counterparts took on an extra smirk and swagger.
So it seemed only appropriate to embark on a football odyssey last Saturday afternoon—not to The Swamp in Gainesville but to the equally sweaty sports bars of Nashville, which promised a potentially explosive mixture of UT and UF fans.
The quest proved irresistible to Don T. Pearson, a Big Orange ultranationalist who approaches new trash-talk opportunities with a maniacal glee. Well before the 2:35 kickoff, Don had arrived at the Box Seat in Green Hills, hoping his “Big Head” UT cap would help flush out confrontation-minded Gator loyalists among the crowd.
Despite his best efforts, however, Don could find only three Florida fans—two of them children—among the Box Seat’s patrons. Nonetheless, the cheers of Vol fans were drowned out—by throngs of Nebraska and Iowa rooters, upstairs watching their respective teams via satellite; for them, Tennessee-Florida was as irrelevant as a war between Paraguay and Bolivia.
By halftime, with Florida leading 20-7, many of the UT fans themselves were advancing rapidly on a drowned-out state. “I’m not worried,” proclaimed Beverly Lydick, who had set down her orange pompons long enough for another guzzle of her Seven-and-Seven. “Smoky’s gonna take a big [bowel movement] on them in the second half.”
Still contemplating that image, we removed to Jonathan’s, where Don found an R-U-Ready-to-Rumble ambiance much more to his liking. There were no other games on TV to distract from the main event, and there were just enough Gator fans to galvanize the ire of the standing-room-only crowd.
In the back, a TV news crew provided a free video platform where fans could yap about their rivals’ inadequacies. In the front, near a large-screen TV, orange partisans were shouting down two men who had stood to wave their arms in the “Gator chomp.”
“I used to hate Alabama till we broke the string,” said Mike Oliphant, after the chompers settled temporarily back into their seats. “Hating Florida is better than hating Alabama because of all the trash talk.”
Closer to the big TV, three guys in Gator hats occupied the afternoon’s most unlikely position, sharing a table with two orange-bedecked couples who had driven in from Ashland City. However, the scenario wasn’t what it seemed.
Two of the three Gators, like a number of those cheering for Florida, turned out to be poseurs: Vanderbilters intent on excoriating UT fans. The table’s ringleader, Gainesville native Austin Garza, had his own less-than-altruistic motives in issuing a call for “some true UT fans” to sit with him: He was searching for a willing mark with whom to place side bets during the game.
Because Florida had scored first and was ahead at halftime, Garza and his friends had enjoyed two pitchers of beer at the expense of their Vol neighbors. In reciprocation, the Florida rooters bought tequila shooters, and the UT fans began to turn as wobbly and dazed as the Vols’ offensive line.
“They’re nice,” slurred Sherri Steele, managing to gesture toward Garza without spilling any tequila on her No. 16 Peyton Manning jersey. “But,” she added quickly, “they still suck.”
Meanwhile, toward the back of the bar, Kenneth E. Hirt complained sanctimoniously that someone was hurling objects across the room at him and his Gator buddies. On top of that, he insisted, he had received a threat of imminent death from a Vol fan who had just departed. I made a mental note to phone Don T. Pearson that evening. Minutes earlier, Don had removed his Vols cap for the day, muttered something unintelligible, and headed home to brood.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Vanderbilt 19, Ole Miss 17
Woody Widenhofer has not yet successfully commanded the sun to stand still, at least not that we know of. Nor has he parted the bilious waters of the Cumberland and led his team onto dry land. Tuscaloosa has not lately endured a plague of locusts.
Still, there is growing suspicion among those in the Wilderness on West End that Woody is the reincarnation of some Old Testament prophet. After all, you’d have to say that, for Vanderbilt to score 30 points in one half against anybody—even TCU—is evidence that the age of signs and wonders is not yet past.
And so it is that our resident oracles find themselves willing to cut the Commodores a little slack this week, though their past four performances against Mississippi have been about as spirited as Quiz Bowl tryouts at the SAE house.
Recent history may dictate otherwise, but after last week’s offensive miracle, it’s hard to resist betting on Vandy. This pick doesn’t even require much limb-venturing.
Florida 40, Kentucky 20
Auburn 27, Central Florida 20
Alabama 20, Southern Miss 14
LSU 60, Akron 7
South Carolina 21, Mississippi State 17
Arkansas 24, Louisiana Tech 7
Michigan 27, Notre Dame 7
Steelers 27, Oilers 16
Michigan 27, Notre Dame 7
Steelers 27, Oilers 16