KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Erik Ainge doesn’t take any added pride in being the last Tennessee quarterback to beat Florida, back in 2004.
In fact, ask Ainge about the Vols’ futility in the SEC East Division rivalry, and the former UT quarterback will tell you he’s just as guilty as any of the other players who failed to beat the Gators in the past 11 meetings.
“If you go back and look at each game, which we have all done, we should have ended this thing, this streak, at least four times over,” said Ainge, who was a freshman when Tennessee beat Florida 30-28 on a 50-yard James Wilhoit field goal in the final seconds.
“In 2006 we had them beat, and I forced a couple balls to (Robert) Meachem on the sideline and should have thrown the check down and we’d be in field goal range. Instead we lost 21-20.”
The No. 14-ranked Vols (3-0) are well aware of the program’s past struggles in the series entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game with the No. 19-ranked Gators (3-0).
But by becoming the first Tennessee team to start 3-0 since those 2004 Vols, they have sparked hope.
Never mind that Tennessee could have easily won the past two meetings, dropping a 10-9 decision in Neyland Stadium in 2014 and then last year’s 28-27 meltdown that saw Florida score two touchdowns in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
“If you’d have told me we’d be having this conversation after we beat them my junior year (2004), I’d have laughed at you,” said former Vols’ tailback Gerald Riggs, who led the UT rushing attack with 63 yards on 15 carries in that now historic 30-28 victory.
“Considering where we were going at that time, I would have felt we’d at least be even and go back and forth in the rivalry. But never, never, would you see a deal where it would go 11 straight.”
The 2004 Vols, with freshmen Ainge and Brent Schaeffer initially splitting quarterback duties, and then later, Rick Clausen, went on to win the SEC East before falling to undefeated Auburn in the SEC title game and dominating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Tennessee appeared to be a program on the rise, but then a puzzling 5-6 season happened in 2005, and a 16-7 defeat Gainesville kicked off an 11-game losing streak to the Gators.
“No, I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” said Chris “Spidaman” Hannon, the leading receiver in the Vols’ most recent win over Florida with eight catches for 89 yards in the 30-28 classic.
“Living back in Florida (Sarasota), my family reminds me of it every year,” said Hannon, a physical education teacher and football assistant coach. “They’ll put Gator stickers on my doors, and they’ve wrapped my car in blue and orange ribbons.
“Any time I wear a Tennessee shirt, they ask me when we’ll finally beat Florida again.”
The Vols are a touchdown favorite to get it done this season. and Ainge, Riggs and Hannon believe this group can get it done for various reasons.
Ainge indicated that the continuity Jones has brought with his staff and recruiting classes will win out.
“This streak spans four staffs; the end of (Phillip) Fulmer, one year of (Lane) Kiffin, three years of (Derek) Dooley) and three years of Butch,” Ainge said. “It’s not like Florida has just dominated anybody, they’ve just beat the end and beginning of everybody.
“We’re playing a quarterback (Austin Appleby) that has beaten one FBS team in his career, and it was Illinois. If we can’t win this game, then we are beating ourselves.”
Hannon said he’s buying into the hype around Tennessee this season, and he likes watching Josh Dobbs make plays.
“I’m feeling confident about this year, and these guys seems like a stronger team,” Hannon said. “They have momentum going into the game, plus the Florida starting quarterback is hurt.
“I like all the players on our team, but that quarterback can do a lot of things, he has a strong arm and he can really run.”
Riggs, who rushed for 182 yards against Auburn later that 2004 season in the SEC Championship Game, said this is a Vols team that has grown together.
“They didn’t have a Casey Clausen in the huddle when they came in as freshmen, like I did,” Riggs said. “They didn’t have that kind of leadership, or those sort of examples.
“They’ve come up together and done a great job, but they are having to figure it out on their own.”
The 2016 Vols coaches and players have said repeatedly they understand the magnitude of the game.
Hannon said the Fulmer-led Vols were told up front what was at stake.
“Some people say it’s Tennessee-Alabama, but to me the biggest rivalry was Tennessee-Florida,” Hannon said. “Coach Fulmer told me about this rivalry, and he said, “I need Florida players like you to beat Florida,’ and those words stayed embedded in me.
“We knew that whoever won that game was going to win the SEC East. Georgia doesn’t want to hear that, but it’s true.”
Ainge said he understands why some at Tennessee don’t want to make too much of the game, with contests against Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama on deck.
“But this game is as big of a game that I can remember us playing since the (2007) conference championship game,” Ainge said. “That’s the last time we played in a game that had this much impact on the trajectory of this program.
“This game if they win, no matter what, Butch is good for a long time here. If they lose, people are going to freak out.”
Riggs, who trains athletes in Chattanooga and helps coach at Notre Dame High School, said Saturday’s game boils down to one thing.
“It’s called being physical,” Riggs said. “We have the team and personnel to physically dominate people on both sides of the ball, we have those people to impose our will.
“But sometimes we love to run sideways. It’s going to be who can execute their plays when they have the opportunity and who will control the clock and the line of scrimmage.”
Hannon said that’s where Tennessee has missed Fulmer.
“For us, it all started with Coach Fulmer, as far as always knowing Tennessee had to play physical,” Hammon said. “Coach Fulmer would say the way you start the play is the way you end it, and we came out with a chip on our shoulder because Coach Fulmer recruited competitors.”
Jones has done his best to recruit competitive players, too, and on Saturday they will learn if they can match the 2004 team and go 4-0 and end the losing streak against the Gators.