For all Peyton Manning accomplished in the NFL, and for every mark he surpassed and set in college, things always appeared to come up just short for him during his four years with the Tennessee Volunteers. No team was responsible for more of those down moments than the Florida Gators, which Manning failed to defeat during his career in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Overall, Manning was 0-4 against Florida; he also lost all three of his starts against the Gators, games that blemished otherwise tremendous seasons for the Volunteers.
So with Manning prepared to announce his retirement from the game of football on Monday following his second Super Bowl victory, let’s take a look at the four times a single college team completely had the number of the 14-time Pro Bowler and five-time NFL MVP.
Florida 31, Tennessee 0 | Sept. 18, 1994: Handing the No. 15 Vols their worst loss at Neyland Stadium in 70 years, the No. 1 Gators pounced on Tennessee “so quickly that one could almost hear Smokey, the Vols’ blue tick coon hound, panting on the sideline,” wrote the Chicago Tribune‘s Andrew Bagnato. UF held UT to 68 rushing yards on 44 touches in the contest, and the passing attack was even more pitiful … except it didn’t include Manning behind center. Manning was actually third on Tennessee’s depth chart (behind future baseball star Todd Helton) and did not even get promoted to second-stright quarterback until after the game.
Florida 62, Tennessee 37 | Sept. 17, 1995: Manning and Florida QB Danny Wuerffel squared off for the first time, and each did what he could to will his team to victory in a game that completely flipped once halftime concluded. The No. 4 Gators trailed the No. 8 Vols 30-14 late in the first half but pulled off a stunning victory, scoring 48 consecutive points as Wuerffel completed 29-of-39 passes for 381 yards and six touchdowns. Manning’s 326 yards were not too shabby, but his defense completely let him down. Florida averaged almost eight yards per play, posted 584 total yards on the day and made Tennessee history for the second straight year. Sports Illustrated also replaced a planned cover featuring Manning with one of Wuerffel. UF’s 62 points were the most scored against UT in 102 years. Both teams finished the regular season without losing again; the Gators played for and lost the national title later that year.
Florida 35, Tennessee 29 | Sept. 22, 1996: History nearly repeated itself in the opposite direction just one year after that tough defeat. When No. 4 Florida jumped ahead 35-0 in Knoxville, Neyland Stadium’s stands began to empty and hope appeared lost for No. 2 Tennessee. But the Gators stopped attacking the Vols, allowing the hosts to get back in the game behind a record-breaking performance by Manning. A school-record 492 yards and four touchdown passes on 37-of-65 passing came from Manning as Tennessee nearly fought all the way back. The problem? Manning was also intercepted four times (also a UT record) in the contest, including twice at the goalline with the Vols threatening to score. Wuerffel matched Manning with four touchdowns but only attempted 22 passes and registered 155 yards in the game as Florida concentrated on controlling the clock with the run. A failed onside kick at the end of the game locked up a third straight victory for UF in the series and allowed the Gators to continue their run to what would be the program’s first national title.
Florida 33, Tennessee 20 | Sept. 20, 1997: Manning returned for his senior season (despite graduating after three years) to take care of some unfinished business. Namely, he wanted to beat Florida, win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Vols to both an SEC and national championship. Well, one of those four ain’t bad. Gators star Fred Taylor ran all over The Swamp, totaling 134 yards on 17 carries and keeping the visitors at arm’s length all day. Manning did register three touchdowns in the contest, but he did so on 29-of-51 passing for 353 yards with two more picks against UF. Manning would go on to register 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns to 11 interceptions on the season, which was good enough for a second-place finish in Heisman voting. Tennessee did wind up winning the SEC East and SEC title (as Florida was upset in a couple of contests later in the season), but it did not go on to the national title game, leaving Manning 1-for-4 on his senior season goals and 0-for-4 in his career against Florida.
For all of Manning’s struggles against the Gators, it’s important to remember that they represent half of his six career losses as a starting quarterback in college. Two of the other three came to Alabama, against which he was 3-1, and eventual national champion Nebraska.
Manning went 7-1 as a fill-in starter as a freshman, finished 39-6 on his career, set numerous Tennessee records and was SEC Player of the Year in 1997. He also led the Vols to four bowl games and a 3-1 record in those contests (yes, including a couple Citrus Bowls). So long, Petyon.