Photo courtesy of Tennessee athletics
Bring up former Tennessee quarterback great and new Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Peyton Manning to a University of Florida fan and they’ll gladly remind you that Manning went 0-4 against their beloved Gators.
During Manning’s four years in Knoxville, the Volunteers lost just nine total games. They lost eight times in the regular season with half of those coming against Florida.
With the exception of a 35-29 contest in 1995 that wasn’t as close as the final score, Manning lost each of his four contests vs. Florida by at least 13 points. Manning however, did win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville — more affectionately known as “The Swamp”.
How Could This Be So?
Manning’s lone victory at The Swamp did not come against Florida. Instead, it came against Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl at the end of the 1994 season — Manning’s freshman season.
The Gator Bowl had traditionally been played in Jacksonville, but due to stadium renovations to prepare for a new NFL franchise called the Jacksonville Jaguars, the contest was played on campus in Gainesville. After a 10-win season in 1993, Tennessee was unranked at 7-4 as it arrived at The Swamp to take on No. 17 Virginia Tech.
Despite being unranked, the Volunteers were a touchdown favorite as the teams met on Dec. 30, 1994. After a 3-4 start, Tennessee had won four straight coming in.
Names You May Know
It wasn’t until the midway point of the 1994 season that the freshman Manning solidified his role as the Tennessee starter. His competition at the position included some names you may have heard of.
His biggest competition was a guy named Todd Helton. Helton threw just two touchdowns compared to three interceptions, but don’t feel bad.
Things would turn out OK for him.
Helton would go on to spend 17 years in Major League Baseball with the Colorado Rockies. Helton was a 5-time All-Star who finished his career with a .316 batting average, 369 home runs, more than 1,400 RBIs, four Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves and a batting title. Baseball Reference has his implied Hall of Fame probability at 91%.
The other signal caller to take snaps for Tennessee in 1994 was named Branndon Stewart. Stewart did not have a spectacular career in sports, but did spend his final three years of eligibility as a key piece for Texas A&M.
In 1998, Stewart threw the winning touchdown pass in overtime to lead the Aggies past No. 2 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship, 36-33. The upset cost the Wildcats a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship against…
The Game Itself
As for the Gator Bowl, Tennessee never trailed. The Volunteers dominated from the start, building a 35-10 halftime lead en route to a 45-23 victory.
Manning finished 12-for-19 passing for 189 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Stewart also connected on each of his three pass attempts for 49 yards.
The MVP for Tennessee however, was running back James Stewart. Stewart rushed for 85 yards and three scores while also throwing a touchdown pass.
Although the game wasn’t played in Jacksonville, Stewart would soon familiarize himself with the city. In the 1995 NFL Draft, Stewart became the first skill player ever selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars when he was chosen 19th overall.
In five seasons with the Jaguars, Stewart accounted for more than 3,800 yards of offense and 38 total touchdowns. Jacksonville made the playoffs four times while Stewart was there.
It would be seven years later before Tennessee again won in Gainesville. The Volunteers held off Florida in a 34-32 thriller to cap the 2001 regular season and win the SEC East. The contest was moved from September to December that year following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Manning finished his career 0-4 against Florida, starting in three of those losses, but did lead Tennessee to the SEC title in 1997. He would go on to be selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL Draft, have a Hall of Fame career and win Super Bowls with two different teams.
The year following Manning’s graduation — in 1998 — the Volunteers snapped a 5-game losing streak to Florida with a thrilling 20-17 overtime victory in Knoxville. Tennessee would go on to claim its first national championship since 1967.
Florida fans can take pride in the fact that the Gators dominated Manning during his time in Knoxville. What they can’t say is that he never won in Gainesville.