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Florida-Tennessee: the most Batman rivalry game

(low growl) IT’S NOT WHO I AM UNDERNEATH BUT HOW I STOP THE RUN THAT DEFINES ME

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Since 2015, DC Comics has designated the third Saturday of September as Batman Day, giving fans two annual opportunities to celebrate a sweaty rich man who beats up petty criminals and the mentally ill. (The other being, of course, Gary Oldman’s annual charity Easter egg hunt.)

Speaking both of misdemeanors and people who should really be in multiple forms of therapy: Though it’s currently scheduled for December in 2020’s COVID-upended slate, the third Saturday of September also traditionally hosts the Florida-Tennessee football game. This is pure coincidence, as far as we know, but one fraught with metaphor and meaning: Gators-Vols may not be the game a celebration of Batman needs, but it is the one he deserves, for the following reasons.

NOTHING ABOUT THIS IS FUNNY FOR ANYONE

Superheroes don’t have to be self-serious and morose, and neither do rivalry games.

Batman, however, is so relentlessly unfunny that one of his greatest archvillains across decades of series history has “comedy” as his entire central theme. Every action Batman takes and every word he grumbles comes double-battered in brooding solemnity.

Rivalries aren’t necessarily funny to the teams and fans involved, but they can be downright uproarious to neutral parties. Miami-Florida State frequently gets decided by pratfall. Oklahoma-Oklahoma State goes with the comic audacity of calling a predictable Sooners win BEDLAM. The Iron Bowl answers the question, “What if we changed it to Chekhov’s special teams unit?”

Nothing is hilarious about Gators-Vols. Ever. To anyone. In the 90s, this game had to be serious because it usually decided the SEC East winner a few weeks into the season. In the 2000s, “good Florida teams beating bad Tennessee teams” turned into “bad Florida teams beating bad Tennessee teams,” neither of which proved to be funny at all. Even the parts of this rivalry that used to be funny – Steve Spurrier making Citrus Bowl jokes, Casey Clausen in 2001 handing Florida its first Vols loss in the Swamp since 1971, Danny Wuerffel winning a Heisman, Spurrier retiring winless all-time against Lane Kiffin – now read tragic. Were the rest of the Zook years really worth the price of him beating Tennessee in his first season? Do you know how thrilled Knoxville would be to get out of this season with a Citrus Bowl berth or any Heisman votes for anybody?

THERE IS NO JOY ANYWHERE

Like the Vols-Gators rivalry series, back in the ‘90s even Batman was clearly attempting to show everyone a good time, coasting off the high of a 1989 cinematic reboot soundtracked by Prince and helpfully offering up a no-miss karaoke anthem for your worst friends from Seal. Today, even when played by such a genial everyman as Ben Affleck, the comedic chops that made The Town one of 2010’s feel-good romps are planed down by grit and painted over with endless layers of sepia malaise. The preceding, more critically-acclaimed run of Batman films, squandered the singing and dancing talents of Christian “Newsies” Bale in favor of a Bruce Wayne outshone in his own best film by his primary adversary (the Joker, again).

The Vols-Gators games themselves are so often scuppered by inclement weather that reduces the play to sloshing in all directions (2002), controversial officiating calls (2000), or just the raw application of slapstick by an angry and unfeeling God (2013) that even the victors feel queasy celebrating too sincerely for too long. Tennessee won that 2001 game, its first victory over Florida of the 21st century, its first since their improbable title run of 1998, after the contest was bumped to December following 9/11. Party hats for everyone! And while the Gators may very well be in the process of constructing another decade-long streak over their hated division-mates, the quality of play they tend to trot out in late September isn’t what anybody would call sterling.

Can you even separate all the miserable UT-UF contests you’ve watched over the past, say, ten years from one another, in your mind? Do you keep finding yourself trapped in a mental cul-de-sac where somehow Nathan Peterman and John Brantley are dueling atop a mountain made of the skulls of their despairing offensive coordinators, even though that’s temporally impossible and definitely unsanitary? Right. You see our point.

DESPITE SIGNIFICANT FINANCIAL OUTLAY, THE WORLD IS NOT IMPROVED

The Universities of Tennessee and Florida jointly spend over $50 million a year on football. Some of that goes towards endeavors not related to this game, including guaranteed payments for non-conference opponents, bowl expenses, and losing to Georgia, but without that money, the Florida-Tennessee game doesn’t happen.

Bruce Wayne spends a good chunk of his billions on Batman accoutrements. (Think about how much work goes into filing Bruce Wayne’s tax return to hide his Bat-spenditures.)

What does all that money accomplish? Can we look at UF-UT and say with any real confidence that it improves the state of college football, or the lives of Florida and Tennessee fans? Is the alternate universe where Florida and Tennessee play football but not against one another so much worse than the timeline we’re on now?

And what of Batman? Sure, the gadgets and vehicles look cool, but doesn’t Gotham City seem perpetually, well, shitty despite all the Caped Crusader’s efforts? There’s no long-term (or even medium-term) reduction in crime or poverty or pollution with Batman. It’s a zero-sum game that costs quite a bit of money, and that’s before you even consider the accumulated property damage. One has to imagine car insurance in Gotham comes with a hefty Batman surcharge.

BOTH CREATE THEIR OWN ENEMIES

Batman has an unfortunate habit of helping standard criminals thrive on the path to supervillainy, either by pushing them to extreme lengths in the hopes of matching up with him or by physically knocking them into vats of chemicals. He’s essentially trapped in an arms race with crime that he arguably started.

Tennessee as a state has some measure of high school football talent, but not at the level that comes out of Florida high schools, which means Florida is quite literally helping the Vols get stronger year after year.

What, in turn, does Florida owe to the Volunteer State?

Johnson City Press, Jan. 11, 1967

We may never know why the celebration of Batman and the continuation of Vols-Gators coincide in so many years. But never say it’s an unsuitable pairing: Sure as the light of the Bat-Signal against a cumulonimbus cloud, a heinous crime will be committed on these third Saturdays of September. The victim’s name?

Football.