This story, wrapping up Florida’s 1997 Sugar Bowl win over Florida State, appeared in the Jan. 13, 1997, issue of The Sporting News and echoes today as Georgia and Alabama are set to play again in the College Football Playoffs National Championship.
It’s good to be king. Just ask Lawrence Wright.
“National champions,” he woofed.
That’s also what it said in sparkling gold letters on the orange paper crown that sat atop the Florida safety’s head after the Gators had destroyed Florida State in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship. And he couldn’t help but punctuate his celebration with a flurry of Gator Chomps (arms moving up and down like a jaw while extended in front of him) as he ran up the tunnel toward the locker room. Indeed, in this latest episode of Gator Chomp vs. FSU Chop, it was Chomp in a landslide.
The rousing 52-20 victory produced a sigh of relief and a burst of joy from Florida fans after their school’s annihilation of Florida State. Life as a Gators fan had been especially tormenting the past 17 years. There had been something missing, a hunger pang in the stomach of every Florida fan.
Sure, there had been beaucoup victories, a sackful of SEC titles and preseason No. 1 rankings. But when you looked at the Gators’ resume, you noticed first the absence of a national championship. That was something fans of Miami, the wicked witch of South Florida and bearer of national titles from 1983, ’87, ’89 and 91, were quick to remind Florida fans whenever they got chesty. Life as a Gator lover got tougher after despised Florida State shed its “choker” label and won its first national crown in 1993. But the we’ve-got-ours-you-don’t-have-yours stuff is over. Miami and Florida State have to make room for the Gators in the champions’ club. It’s a title Florida was destined to win.
Gators No. 1. That’s the vision most had before the start of the season — but there almost was a revision of the script. When the preseason polls came out in August, most had Florida on top. Sixteen starters returned, including eight from its famed Fun ‘n’ Gun offense, from a team that played Nebraska for the national title last season and got husked, 62-24. It was an ugly and embarrassing loss and just another example of how the Gators couldn’t deliver the goods like their in-state brethren. Many relished seeing Florida coach Steve Spurrier, he of the country club visor and whiny ways, stumble badly.
This season seemed to have a haunting familiarity to 1995: fast start, tragic ending. Florida feasted on its first 10 foes and sat at No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for 10 weeks. There was nary a speed bump, as the Gators cruised to a collision course with unbeaten Florida State on November 30. Florida fans should have seen it coming. They knew Spurrier hadn’t figured out Bobby Bowden. Saint Bobby brought out the worst in Steve Superior, who was 24-1 against FSU entering their games and 2-5-1 exiting them, after the No. 2 Seminoles dumped the No. 1 Gators, 24-21, in Tallahassee.
Again, it looked like Florida could forget about winning it all. And this looked to be its season. Yes, FSU beat the Gators, but Florida rallied and nearly beat the Seminoles. You still could argue that Florida was the team. It had the nation’s best (and maybe best-ever) quarterback in Danny Wuerffel and one of the country’s top defenses, but it had that loss. However, destiny stepped in the next week, and Florida’s fortunes turned
First, Texas beat Nebraska in the Big 12 title game to knock the Huskers out of a showdown with the No. 1 Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl. That opened the door for Florida to meet Florida State in the Sugar Bowl if the Gators beat Alabama in the SEC title game, which Florida did with ease. So the rematch Florida State loathed was set.
But even a victory over the Seminoles wouldn’t guarantee a national title for Florida. There was Arizona State, unbeaten and talking national championship. All it had to do was beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl to kill the one-loss Gators’ hopes. And Florida fans knew the Buckeyes were 1-6 in bow! games under John Cooper, so an ASU loss was improbable.
That scenario made it tough to watch for the Gators, which is what they didn’t do. They feigned disinterest by conducting a workout as the Rose Bowi began on New Year’s Day. They wanted to get away from any distractions before the January 2 Sugar Bowl, so after the workout they boarded buses for Gonzales, La., some 50 miles west of New Orleans, to spend the night. Rose Bowl? Who cared about the Rose Bowl. Florida was playing Florida State: It didn’t need the motivation of playing for No. 1 to get up for a contest against the hated Seminoles. It wasn’t a convincing act by the Gators.
But when players and coaches emerged from their hotel rooms the day after Arizona State’s loss, it was high-fives all around. And everyone’s step was appreciably livelier. The Buckeyes’ good fortunes against Arizona State left Florida poised to strike the final blow. Forget about the Sun Devils and magical quarterback Jake Plummer being destiny’s team. Florida was the chosen all along and proved it by crushing Florida State, which was hampered by the fact Warrick Dunn had to battle dehydration and finished with just nine carries for 28 yards and a touchdown.
“First of all, I’ll say what Danny (Wuerffel) always says: ‘God looked down on the Gators this year,’” Spurrier said. “We have a lot to be thankful for. I want the players to realize that divine guidance or something like that helped us this year.”
Call it fate fulfilled.
Sure, the Gators are lucky Texas made pedestrian Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost beat them (and he couldn’t do it), and Arizona State’s secondary made Ohio State quarterback Joe Germaine a member of the Clint Longley Hall of Fame. But this was a megatalented Florida team that deserved the chance for a do-over vs. Florida State. How great were the 12-1 Gators?
• Florida outscored its nine SEC opponents, 421-142, an average of 46.8-15.8. And remember, this isn’t the Big East or ACC. The SEC went 5-0 in the postseason, cementing its status as the nation’s top conference and shaming those (TSN included) who jumped on the Big 12’s bandwagon in August and named it the land’s best.
• Florida claimed its fourth consecutive SEC title, something accomplished just one other time, and became the first to win at least nine regular-season league games in consecutive years.
There’s much more head-shaking data, but you get the point. The numbers show this team deserved to finish No. 1, and it accomplished all of this despite being hit hard by injuries that forced the Gators to start 38 different players in the regular season.
Ohio State may feel it deserves a share of the title or possession of No. 1 after finishing 11-1. Yes, the Buckeyes beat an unbeaten team, but their untimely 13-9 loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale left a rotten taste in pollsters’ mouths. A comeback victory in a big bowl game is a start for perpetually slow-finishing Ohio State. But for now, Cooper’s career in Columbus is more noteworthy for big losses. Mention his tenure at Ohio State, and it’s almost reflex to recite his 1-7-1 mark vs. the school with cool helmets.
(Though the Buckeyes’ perceived slight caused a minor stir, Brigham Young’s beef that it should have been considered a top dog borders on humorous. Perhaps the best thing that came out of the Cougars’ 14-1 record-aside from the fact they became the first Division I-A team to win that many in a season is it proves as laughable arguments that a multigame national playoff would cause stress on student-athletes. The BYU victory total is impressive, but its lack of quality foes in the wimpy WAC is glaring. Not another peep out of Provo.)
The national championship story had two parts this season unlike 1995, when the Bowl Alliance was able to arrange a No. 1 vs. No, 2 matchup. 1996 wasn’t so clean-cut, thanks to 11-0 and No. 2-ranked Arizona State of the Pac-10, which along with the Big Ten doesn’t join the Alliance until the 1998 season. But by the time the sun had set on Pasadena on January 1, the nation had its national-title game, thanks to Ohio State’s 20-17 triumph over the Sun Devils.
One had a sense this wasn’t going to be a typical Rose Bowl when the weather looked un-LA-like. There hadn’t been appreciable rain at the Rose Bowl since 1955. It didn’t pour this January 1, but it was Big Ten overcast for much of the game and drizzling by the second half.
The weather may have been an indicator something was up, yet many still wondered how the Buckeyes would get motivated. They had little on the line, save for winning their first Rose Bowl since the 1973 season and gaining some pride. Conversely, the Sun Devils’ stake was national-championship big. It seems someone or something at Arizona State disrespected the Buckeyes, and that’s all they needed to hear or think they heard.
That doesn’t explain what happened to the Sun Devils’ secondary on Ohio State’s last drive. After Plummer’s dramatic 11-yard touchdown scramble gave ASU a 17-14 lead with 1:40 remaining, it looked like everything was in order: Plummer had engineered another comeback victory with a late scoring drive, and Ohio State had lost another bowl game. Been there, done that.
But the Buckeyes subsequent 12-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Germaine, who had replaced ineffective starter Stanley Jackson, hitting David Boston with a 5-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds remaining. It was a stunner, though it wasn’t an Elway-esque drive; it was more of the Neil O’Donnell variety — but it worked. Germaine completed just 4-of-10 passes on the march, although two completions came on third down. He wasn’t the key: rather, it was the two pass-interference penalties called against the Sun Devils.
“We played man-to-man — in fact, we played bump-and-run-the entire game, and I think they wore us down at the end,” ASU defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “During the last drive. I had to rotate our DBs into the game to keep them fresh. Our guys were worn out.”
Despite the rain and hair-raising finish, John Cooper didn’t look weathered, thanks to son John Jr. Primed to proclaim to the world after the game that his Buckeyes can win a big game, Coach Coop was tossed by his son a black cap that featured a block “0” with “Ohio State across it on the front. It was reminiscent of a stock-car pit crew member tossing the driver a hat to wear that features the sponsor’s logo after a race has been won. And like those victory-lane celebrations, Cooper’s joy and I-told-you-so relief was apparent. And the hat looked good.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Cooper said. “We’ve won a lot of big games. Maybe (the media) will stop writing about how we can’t win the big one.”
They did — at least for one day.
It’s funny how Danny Wuerffel’s Richie Cunningham persona doesn’t grow old. That’s because in addition to being talented and tough — “He’s the best quarterback to ever play college football,” Spurrier says — the Heisman Trophy winner is genuine and humble.
“Our receivers did a great job getting open, like they always do,” Wuerffel said. “We had a great night all around offensively.”
A sculpture of him should be commissioned, and it should be awarded to the nation’s best player starting next season: the Wuerffel Trophy. Forget Heisman; he has nothing on Wuerffel, who completed 18-of-34 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns (all to Ike Hilliard) en route to earning Sugar Bowl MVP honors.
“I was just amazed at what they were able to do,” said Bowden, who saw his string of 14 consecutive bowl games without a loss end as his Seminoles team finished 11-1. “Wuerffel is the guy. He is something. You have to get to Wuerffel if you are going to beat them.”
“I have been giving it to him all year,” said Florida State defensive end Peter Boulware, who helped abuse Wuerffel in the teams’ first meeting but was largely thwarted in the rematch by Florida’s use of the shotgun. “He has great character and is a great player. The only way to stop him is to sack him. Just rushing and putting pressure on him won’t do.”
Indeed. Wuerffel was wonderful, but he also is gone. That means one of the most glamorous jobs in college football is available for Doug Johnson (who?) to take. The name is generic, but he’s a potential gem.
The Gators’ quarterback job under Spurrier is built for bigness. Big statistics, big victories, big glory. And it seems anyone can step in and shine, regardless of physical stature. Shane Matthews and Terry Dean, they were undersized guys with undersized arms. Wuerffel was the same. They seemed to loft passes that speedy wideouts ran under. Johnson is different — he’s big (6-2, 195) and has an arm to match.
“He has a chance to be an outstanding quarterback.” says senior backup QB Brian Schottenheimer, who transferred to Florida from Kansas with an eye toward becoming a coach while learning under Spurrier. “The way he picked up the system is incredible. He has a strong arm, makes good decisions. He just needs to play, and that’s what spring ball is about. I expect great things from Doug.”
So do the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who picked him in the second round of the 1996 draft. The Devil Rays see Johnson as a promising third base prospect and wanted to get him in the fold. Say yes to baseball, no to football. But Johnson couldn’t resist the chance to pull on a Florida uniform. He wanted to quarterback his beloved Gators, something he had done many times in his backyard while growing up in Gainesville. The Devil Rays kept coming, and he eventually signed and received a $400,000 bonus — but it was understood he would be allowed to play football at Florida.
The Gators are glad because they have few options. Jesse Palmer, who hails from Canada, is a ballyhooed prospect who already has committed to Florida, but he’ll need time to develop. The Gators need the hometown boy to make good. Now.
Bobby Sabelhaus was supposed to be the man. He was the first nationally recruited quarterback to sign with Spurrier at Florida, but the 1994 Parade All-American had horrible mechanics and didn’t get along with the coach. He was gone after one season, which put Johnson on the fast track.
“I don’t feel pressure,” says Johnson. “I see it as a great opportunity and privilege to fo!low great players like Danny (Wuerffel) and Shane (Matthews). I’m looking forward to it.
“I don’t see how I can leave this place (and just play baseball). I’m a Gator and always will be a Gator. I can’t get this type of experience (winning the national title) playing baseball.”
Johnson received cursory playing time as a true freshman in 1996, completing 12-of-27 passes for 171 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, but it wasn’t because Spurrier didn’t believe in him. In fact, Spurrier raves about Johnson, which is worth noting for a coach who rations compliments for his quarterbacks. Spurrier says Johnson is a natural whose arm strength is unmatched by any freshman he has coached. Think of the possibilities.
He’s young, good-looking, upwardly mobile and smart. He is perhaps the most talked about assistant coach in the business. He is to defense what Spurrier is to offense. He’s Bob Stoops, and life is good.
The lack of a stingy defense was the thing keeping Florida from finishing No. 1 (see: the 1996 Disaster in the Desert). That changed when Stoops brought his stop knowledge to Gainesville from Kansas State before this season. He could have taken a head coaching job somewhere after this season, but he’ll be back to lead what may be the best defense in the nation in 1997.
It starts with a line young unit that will feature just one senior next season that is as athletic as most teams’ linebacking corps. There’s Ed Chester, the leader whose voice wouldn’t startle a kindergartener and upper body wouldn’t draw a second look on a Florida beach. But he’s quick, flexible and has a lot of wanna.
“It all starts up front for us,” he says. “If we play bad, we’ll lose. This spring. I want to lead by example. Reggie McGrew, Anthony Mitchell young guys like (Tim) Beauchamp and (Willie) Cohen, they’re learning and playing hard. Next year, they’ll be experienced.”
It’s not a bulky bunch. Ends Cohens and Beauchamp are converted linebackers who weigh 255. Tackles McGrew and Chester are around 275, and none of these starters is taller than 6-4
Johnny Rutledge (remember that name) and Mike Peterson return to start at line backer, but the secondary must replace three starters. However, returning cornerback Fred Weary is a good building block
“We need to get better at a lot of things,” Stoops says, specifically citing concentration and discipline in techniques. “Some of the plays we give up are a result of our poor play instead of someone else beating us. We don’t want someone scoring or moving the ball on account of our mental breakdowns and make them beat us physically.”
That’s tough to do when facing Florida’s attacking, man-to-man defending system, a scheme that’s mimicked poorly at many schools that lack Florida’s talent. It’s a system that made the Gators go this season and got the ball back to the offense quickly. And you know Spurrier likes to have the ball. It was a contrast to the softer scheme employed by former coordinator Bob Pruett, who moved on to coach Marshall to the I-AA national title this season, but it has worked and should continue to be effective with the players returning in the fall.
“We’re just a bunch of athletes that want to get there,” Chester says.
“There” for Chester and Co. was the national championship.