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For the first 10 years of the SEC Championship’s existence, the East division was represented by two teams — Florida and Tennessee.
An SEC East title was on the line as the teams met on this day 20 years ago in Gainesville. In the end, a stopped 2-point conversion was the difference as the Volunteers held on for a thrilling 34-32 victory.
Setting the Stage
Typically, the annual contest between Florida and Tennessee had been played in September. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, all games scheduled for that week were moved to the end of the season.
On Dec. 1, 2001, both teams arrived with a 9-1 overall record, a 6-1 SEC record and ranked in the top five. National title hopes were alive for both schools.
The Gators were ranked No. 2 while Tennessee came in ranked fifth. Tennessee had not beat Florida in Gainesville since 1971.
A Stop Seals It
The first quarter was dominated by Tennessee. In the second, the Gators scored 20 straight points to take a 20-14 lead into the locker room.
The second half however, was back and forth.
Tennessee’s Travis Stephens’ 35-yard touchdown run — his second of the game — gave the Volunteers a 21-20, but a field goal by Jeff Chandler would allow Florida to take a 2-point advantage into the final period. That would be the Gators’ final lead.
Two short touchdown runs from Tennessee’s Jabari Davis bookended a 52-yard field goal from Chandler in the final quarter. With Tennessee leading 34-26, Florida faced a critical drive from its own 33-yard-line.
A personal foul on Tennessee seemed to jumpstart the Gators. Quarterback Rex Grossman completed six passes on the march and Florida converted a pair of short third downs. With 1:26 to play, Grossman found Carlos Perez for the 3-yard touchdown.
In what would be his final game as head coach at Ben Hill-Griffin Stadium, Steve Spurrier was left with no choice. He had to go for two.
Grossman dropped back, but couldn’t find an open receiver. With Tennessee defenders bearing down on him, Grossman was forced to fire one into the end zone. His pass for Jabar Gaffney was incomplete.
Tennessee had survived.
Grossman passed for 362 yards, accounted for three total touchdowns and one interception while Gaffney and Reche Caldwell each eclipsed 100 yards receiving. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Stephens powered the Tennessee attack with 226 yards rushing and two scores. The Volunteers held the slight advantage in yardage and pulled out the win despite turning the ball over three times to just once for Florida.
Florida’s SEC and national championship hopes came crashing down, but the Gators closed the year on a high note. In what would be Spurrier’s final game, Florida crushed ACC champion Maryland 56-23 in the Orange Bowl to finish third in the final polls.
Tennessee ascended to No. 2 in the polls after the win. With a chance to play for a national title however, the Volunteers were upset by LSU in the SEC Championship. Tennessee also finished in the top five, following a 45-17 rout of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
While the Volunteers failed to win a third SEC crown in five years, they did beat Florida in Gainesville for the first time in 30 years. They did so on this day two decades ago.