Photo credit: Josh Biever/Sports Illustrated
Throughout his football career, there was little that Peyton Manning didn’t accomplish. During his collegiate career at Tennessee, there seemed to be only one thing he couldn’t do — beat Florida.
On this day 25 years ago, Manning got his final shot at the rival Gators. In what would be a top-5 showdown in Gainesville, the results were the same as Florida claimed a 33-20 victory.
Setting the Stage
Reigning national champion Florida was ranked No. 3 in the country as it arrived at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 20, 1997. The Gators had won four straight contests in the series, including a 35-29 victory the year prior in Knoxville. At 2-0, Florida had outscored its first two opponents by a combined score of 103-12.
Ranked fourth in the country, Tennessee had opened the year with wins over Texas Tech and UCLA. After a bye week, the Volunteers arrived in Gainesville in a contest that many thought would decide the SEC East.
Gators Do it Again
For the second year in a row, Tennessee would never enjoy a lead against rival Florida. Manning would finish the contest with 353 yards and three touchdown passes, but his first throw that went for a touchdown went to Florida safety Tony George.
Hit on a blitz, Manning’s wobbler was picked off and returned 89 yards for a touchdown by George. It was the second-longest interception return in Florida history at the time. The score gave the Gators a 14-0 lead.
Tennessee was able to draw to within seven late in the second quarter on a 22-yard touchdown strike from Manning to Jermaine Copeland. That would be the last time that the Volunteers would be within one score. Florida responded in less than a minute as Doug Johnson’s second touchdown pass of the day went to Jacquez Green to give Florida a 20-7 halftime lead.
Both teams turned the ball over three times in the contest but none were more costly than George’s pick-6 late in the first quarter. Like Manning, Johnson passed for three touchdowns to go with 261 yards. Both quarterbacks were intercepted twice.
Tennessee held the edge in total yardage, but could get nothing going on the ground. While Jamie Richardson and Taras Ross also caught touchdowns for Florida, Green led all receivers with eight catches for 185 yards. Fred Taylor rushed for 134 yards in the win.
For Florida, the victory made it seem as though the Gators would cruise to a sixth straight SEC East crown. The Gators ascended to No. 1 in the polls but losses to LSU and Georgia over a 3-week stretch changed the course of the division race.
Tennessee would run the table for the remainder of the regular season before beating Auburn in Atlanta for its first SEC championship since 1990. Ranked No. 3, Tennessee entered bowl season with the hopes of winning a national title, but was ultimately crushed by eventual co-national champion Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 42-17.
As for Manning, he would finish as Heisman Trophy runner-up while claiming SEC Player of the Year, the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards. Throughout his illustrious career, Manning lost just three games as a starter to schools not named Florida. Against the Gators, he went 0-3 as a starter and 0-4 overall. The final of those losses was a top-5 matchup that took place on this day a quarter-century ago.