Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today, he looks back on Peyton Manning’s career vs. SEC East rival Florida ahead of Saturday's Vol-Gator showdown in Knoxville.
No matter how high he climbs, there are few claims Eli Manning has staked or will ever stake in football that his brother didn't get to first. SEC Player of the Year? Been there. No. 1 pick in the draft? Done that. Super Bowl MVP? Yawn.
But there's one thing little brother did that Peyton Manning will never be able to accomplish: Beat the Florida Gators. Twice. Granted, Eli did it during the Ron Zook Era. But the elder Manning was 0-3 as a starter vs. UF, with the last two losses in particular submarining his Heisman campaigns and permanently tarnishing his otherwise illustrious college resumé at Tennessee:
• 1994: Florida 31, Tennessee 0 (Knoxville). You can’t blame the Vols' worst home loss in 70 years on Manning. Starter Todd Helton (yes, that Todd Helton), was dreadful for the better part of three-and-a-half quarters, before Archie's boy – only a true freshman – came in to go 3-5 for 27 yards in mop-up duty. Peyton left to make way for another backup, Branndon Stewart, to take a few reps as well. The brutal loss was a sign of things to come.
• 1995: Florida 62, Tennessee 37 (Gainesville): The ’94 loss was on the offense; this one was on the D: Manning threw for 326 yards and led the Vols to a 30-14 lead late in the first half. From there, Steve Spurrier and Gator QB Danny Wuerffel reloaded the Fun 'n Gun and proceeded to unload on the UT secondary for 48 unanswered points. Granted, Manning only went 10 for 20 in the second half, but it’s hard to win when your opponent scores on six straight possessions.
• 1996: Florida 35, Tennessee 29 (Knoxville): The birth of Manning's longstanding, still unshakeable rep as a big-game choke artist., thanks to four interceptions in the first half – two of them on the Gator goal line – as Florida jumped out to a 35-0 lead in the most anticipated showdown of the regular season. Manning led a valiant comeback attempt in the second half and finished with nearly 500 yards, but it wasn’t enough. Instead, it was Wuerffel who made his move on the Heisman with four touchdowns on just 11 passes in the first half, as the Gators made their biggest move toward the school's first national title.
• 1997: Florida 33, Tennessee 20 (Gainesville): With Manning's surprise return for his senior year and Wuerffel off to an instantly forgettable pro career , with Spurrier cracking in classic Ball Coach fashion on Manning's goal to become the first three-time MVP of the Citrus Bowl, there were no excuses left. And Manning came out of Gainesville with another big statistical day in the end. Under pressure, though, he literally threw the game away in the first half, uncorking an interception in the face of a Florida blitz that safety Tony George took to the houst for a two-touchdown lead the Gators would never relinquish. That throw may have cost Tennessee a perfect regular season and Manning the Heisman Trophy. But most painfully, it left him 0-4 against his the rival that had grown into his personal white whale. Said the defeated quarterback after the game: "I'm sure Coach Spurrier will go and make a few more jokes. That's fine. He can go on doing that, I guess. He won again."
It wasn't until Manning left, in 1998, that a relatively nondescript team finally overcame the Florida curse, ran the table in the regular season and choked the life out of Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl for the first BCS championship, forever marking Manning as Exhibit A for advocates of the Ewing Theory.
Because of Spurrier and the Gators – with a little help from the New England Patriots in back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2003-04 – the "choker" label stuck with Manning throughout his NFL career, until he won Super Bowl XLI in 2007, only to return in February when another pick-six cost the Colts the Super Bowl on a remarkably similar play to Tony George's pick-six 12 years before. And you just got the feeling that, somewhere, Steve Spurrier was somewhere watching, cackling and smoking a big fat cigar.
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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, an historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.