The Florida Gators came into the 1996 college football season as both a team on the rise, and a team with a lot to prove. Behind the offensive innovation of head coach Steve Spurrier, Florida had enjoyed its greatest successes, and played for the national title in 1995. But in that last game, the Gators were obliterated by Nebraska, leaving questions about whether their flashy passing game was accompanied by sufficient substance to win it all. Florida answered that question in resounding fashion in 1996, winning the program’s first national championship.
Danny Wuerfell was behind center and the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback engineered the most prolific offense in the country, throwing to All-American wide receiver Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard. The defense, a respectable 14th nationally, was led by Thorpe Award winner, Lawrence Wright, in the secondary.
Florida was ranked #4 to start the season and their first big challenge came early. Tennessee had a junior quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning. The winner of this September 28 game would take command of the SEC East. The Vols were up to #2 when kickoff arrived, but the Gators delivered a 35-29 win.
That was followed by impressive wins in SEC play, including back-to-back blowouts of ranked opponents in LSU and Auburn by a combined score of 107-23. Florida ascended to the top of the polls and pointed towards their season-ending battles with Florida State and for the conference championship.
Florida State was the preseason #3 team. Their offense was led by the superb all-around talents of running back Warrick Dunn. The defense had a pair of All-Americans in the trenches, Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson. The Seminoles won key ACC games over North Carolina and Virginia, and knocked off sixth-ranked Miami, then in the Big East. The Seminoles were unbeaten and ranked #2 when the head-to-head battle arrived with the Gators arrived.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Tallahassee, Florida State knocked off Florida in a good 24-21 game. Losing a close one on the road certainly wasn’t as embarrassing as the prior year’s Nebraska loss. But it did look like the Gator’s rise to the top would be delayed for another year. They needed help.
Florida State was ticketed for the Sugar Bowl. The format of the time designated the Sugar as this year’s bowl to host the 1-2 teams. But, there was a significant catch. The Rose Bowl, with the Big Ten and Pac-10, was not yet included in what was then called The Bowl Alliance. And both of those conferences would produce teams that made a run at #1.
Ohio State was ranked #9 in the preseason. Even with the departure of ’95 Heisman winner Eddie George, the Buckeyes were still loaded. Offensive tackle Orlando Pace won both the Outland and Lombardi Trophies and paved the way for Pepe Pearson to rush for nearly 1,500 yards. The Ohio State defense ranked #2 in the nation for points allowed. They went to South Bend in September and dismantled then-#5 Notre Dame, 29-16.
The key game in Big Ten play was against Penn State on October 5. The Nittany Lions were a national contender themselves, behind 1,200-yard rusher Curtis Enos. Penn State had opened the season by taking apart then-#7 USC 24-7 in the Kickoff Classic. But in this early October battle, the Lions could not match up with the Buckeyes. Ohio State rolled to a 38-7 win.
John Cooper’s Buckeyes wrapped up the Rose Bowl bid and were ranked #3 going into their season finale at home with Michigan. Ohio State’s hope was simple—win out, and hope the winner of Florida-Florida State lost in the Sugar Bowl. Michigan was not a great opponent in 1996. Furthermore, the Wolverines had stunned the Buckeyes in virtually this same scenario a year earlier. All of which made Michigan’s 13-9 victory in Columbus an even bigger upset. Cooper would get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in his Buckeye tenure. But he would be blocked out of the national championship race.
The same could not be said for Arizona State. The Sun Devils were the surprise team of 1996, starting the year unranked, but quickly playing their way onto the radar with a 19-0 shocker over top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Nebraska in September. Arizona State had All-Americans on both sides of the trenches, Juan Roque on offense and Derrick Rodgers on defense. They had a 1,000-yard rusher in Terry Battle. And Jake Plummer, with an NFL future ahead of him, threw 23 touchdown passes.
Arizona State completed their season undefeated. They were #2 in the country going into the Rose Bowl, hoping to beat Ohio State, and then see Florida State lose in the Sugar. But who would FSU be playing in that Sugar Bowl game?
Nebraska had overcome that early loss to the Sun Devils and played their way back into contention. The Cornhuskers were in the top four nationally for both offense and defense. Grant Wistrom was an All-American on the defensive front. Scott Frost was at quarterback, and Ahman Green, a future Pro Bowler in Green Bay, was the lead running back.
This was the first year of existence for the Big 12, a conference that was then split into a North and South division. Nebraska got a challenge from Colorado in the Big 12 North. The Buffaloes were led by Butkus Award-winning linebacker Matt Russell. Quarterback Koy Detmer was throwing to an 1,100-yard receiver in Rae Carruth.
When the Cornhuskers and Buffs went head-to-head on Black Friday, they were both in the top 5. Ohio State’s loss six days earlier meant that the winner of this game would have a path to New Orleans and a shot at Florida State. Nebraska won a tough 17-12 decision.
There was still the Big 12 Championship Game to play. Texas had lost four games en route to winning the South Division. They had a mediocre defense. But the Longhorns also had an explosive sophomore running back named Ricky Williams, running behind a line led by All-American Dan O’Neil. In the conference title game that offense, led by quarterback James Brown, came up big and stunned Nebraska 37-27.
Meanwhile, Florida took care of their own business in the SEC Championship Game, beating Alabama 45-30. The Gators had gotten much of the help they needed. Ohio State’s loss meant the Rose Bowl would not be a battle of unbeatens. Nebraska’s loss opened the door to New Orleans. Florida was #3 in the polls and got a rematch with Florida State.
Nebraska opened the major bowls on New Year’s Eve by gaining some measure of redemption with an easy 41-21 win over Big East champ Virginia Tech. One night later, Penn State made an impressive closing statement in the Fiesta Bowl by hammering Texas 38-15.
In between those two games was the Rose Bowl. Arizona State led 17-14 in the fourth quarter and was in position to keep their hopes alive. Then Ohio State drove for a late touchdown. A missed extra point kept the score at 20-17 and gave Plummer a last desperate chance. But the Buckeyes hung on.
Everything had fallen into place for Florida. The Sugar Bowl would be a clean, winner-take-all showdown for the national championship. And did the Gators ever make the most of their second chance. The game was close into the second half, but then Florida’s offense completely unloaded. Landing haymaker after haymaker, the Gators exacted revenge for both their November loss to FSU and their loss the previous January to Nebraska. The final score was 52-20. Florida’s rise to the top of the college football world was complete.