Steve Spurrier has some thoughts on what Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff need to do against Alabama to reverse the result of the SEC championship game and give the Bulldogs the national title.
After all, he has experience with that kind of thing.
Spurrier and the Florida Gators bounced back from a late-season defeat at the hands of Florida State in 1996, and then 33 days later turned around and knocked off the Seminoles to win the school’s first national title.
“(Georgia has) to go back and look at whatever Auburn did for almost four quarters. Auburn stopped (Alabama) a whole bunch,” Spurrier says. “Instead of playing their normal defenses, this one has to be something different.
Which is exactly how Spurrier pulled off his national title victory, only it was the other side of the ball.
When Florida and Florida State squared off in the final week of the regular season in 1996, both teams carried 10-0 records. Florida was ranked No. 1, FSU No. 2, and the scene was a thunderous Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee that was out for blood. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel was headed for the Heisman Trophy, and he had three wide receivers (Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony) who would all be drafted within the first 34 picks of the next two NFL Drafts.
Bobby Bowden and Florida State decided they were simply not going to let Wuerffel throw it to his all-world receivers without paying a price. Feeding off the energy of the home crowd, Florida State battered and bruised the Florida quarterback, earning two roughing the passer penalties and recording six sacks.
“FSU, according to Danny Wuerffel’s dad, who looked at the tape, knocked him down 34 times after he threw the ball,” Spurrier says. “For some reason, the SEC referees only called one or two ‘roughing the passers.’”
Wuerffel managed three touchdowns and 362 yards, but also threw three interceptions. Florida missed a field goal and had a punt blocked, and when the final gun sounded, the goalposts were ripped down below a scoreboard that read FSU 24, Florida 21.
“We had a touchdown called back (for holding), but they probably outplayed us,” Spurrier says.
When the Gators returned to Gainesville, they began preparations for the SEC Championship Game against an Alabama team that was 9-2 and allowing just 12.4 points per game. After watching his star quarterback get beat up by a fierce Florida State pass rush, Spurrier feared the same might happen against Alabama. So he talked to his center, talked to his quarterback, and said it was time to start using the shotgun formation to give his passer a little extra time.
It worked. Wuerffel threw for 401 yards and six touchdowns as the Gators lit up the Tide 45-30. It was Florida’s fourth straight SEC championship.
“They played bump-and-run, man-to-man the whole game,” Spurrier says. “They suffocated other teams, but we had receivers they couldn’t cover.”
The loss to Florida State had dropped the Gators to No. 4 in the AP poll, but the win over Alabama, coupled with No. 3 Nebraska’s loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, pushed Florida to No. 3. It also set up a rematch with No. 1 FSU in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. When Ohio State knocked off No. 2 Arizona State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, the Sugar Bowl became the game that would decide the national championship.
Spurrier says for the first time in his career, he went to the pregame officials meeting and asked the crew their stance on ‘roughing the passer’ penalties.
“It was a Big 12 crew and the guy was from Texas,” Spurrier says. “He said, ‘Coach, it’s pretty simple. If the guy is throwing the ball and the rusher knows it, you can’t hit him. He might bump into him, but he can’t lower the boom on him.”
Armed with two offensive tackles who missed the first FSU game and the shotgun formation against the same man-to-man defense Alabama employed, plus the officials “calling ‘roughing the passer’ right,” Florida broke open a tight game in the second half and ran away from the Seminoles 52-20. The Gators scored the final 28 points of the game and Wuerffel had 304 yards and three touchdowns passing plus one rushing touchdown.
“We had a little extra ‘mad’ on after the way they hit Danny Wuerffel late,” Spurrier says.
Twenty-five years later, Georgia will try to turn the tables on Alabama in Indianapolis 36 days after suffering a 41-24 loss in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns in Atlanta, and Georgia’s fierce defense had no sacks despite Young throwing 44 times.
“Alabama has outstanding receivers. But Georgia has good defensive backs,” Spurrier says. “Good passing teams are hard to stop if you don’t get pressure on the quarterback. You have to disguise your coverages. They gotta do something different.”
Spurrier doesn’t believe Georgia will have to overcome any mental blocks. He said his top Florida teams thought they could beat everyone they faced if they played well, and he thinks the Bulldogs have that same mentality.
“Georgia is due. They just got outplayed the last time they played Alabama,” he says. “I do think Georgia has a good chance to win the game. At some point, Alabama is going to play a not-so-great game. It seems like every year, they play that national championship game, and they have an excellent game.”