The 1996 college football season looked headed for a predictable finish. It got there, but in the mold of a well-written Hollywood script that were some wild twists and turns that made you wonder how the anticipated outcome was going to occur, but the scriptwriters got there eventually.
Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators were looking for redemption. They had been humiliated in 1995, when an undefeated season ended with a nightmarish finish, a rout at the hands of Nebraska in a Fiesta Bowl game that settled the national title. Florida opened the season ranked fourth in the nation.
In the mid-1990s, the Florida-Tennessee game was the most anticipated matchup on the September calendar for college football fans. The two teams were far and away the best in the SEC East. The winner had a clear path to Atlanta for the conference championship and possibly more. The loser could start preparing for the Citrus Bowl (today’s Capital One Bowl).
Peyton Manning was the quarterback at Tennessee in 1996, the Vols were ranked #2 and had the game at home. But Florida blistered them in a 35-29 game that was a rout early and only a cosmetic touchdown with ten seconds left made the score look close.
By the end of September, Florida was ranked #1 in the country. Quarterback Danny Wuerffel was on his way to the Heisman Trophy. The Gators hammered Top 20 teams in LSU & Auburn by a combined 107-23 and pointed to a season-ending battle with Florida State in Tallahassee.
Florida State had opened the season at #3, and a 13-0 win over North Carolina, then coached by Mack Brown a solid Top 20 program, moved the Seminoles up to #2 by the end of September. They were on a collision course with Florida, and as FSU hammered rival Miami and survived Virginia, the college football world was set for the big 1 vs. 2 battle on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The reason Florida and Florida State moved up to the top poll spots was that two-time defending national champion Nebraska had stumbled in September. Arizona State, ranked #20 in the preseason poll shut out the Cornhuskers 19-0. It was just the start of a surprisingly big year for the Sun Devils. They had future NFL quarterback Jake Plummer behind center, won consecutive shootouts over UCLA & USC, stayed undefeated and natural attrition kept them moving up on the polls.
College football’s national championship scenario was still simple though. Florida-Florida State would be an elimination game, with the winner likely playing Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, the bowl game designated to host the top two available teams. Prior to 1998, the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not yet part of this arrangement, so Arizona State, as well as undefeated Ohio State, were set to play each other. Those two teams would play in the Rose Bowl and then hope for a Sugar Bowl upset.
Then the craziness started. Ohio State was upset by Michigan, and even though the Buckeyes were still Rose Bowl-bound, they were now only there as spoiler. Florida State won the big rivalry game with Florida, jumping out to a 17-0 lead and holding on 24-21. Florida looked finish. While the Ohio State loss had kept them alive, they still needed more help.
Unbelievably, that help came. The Big 12 was in its first year of existence and for the first time, Nebraska had to play a conference championship game. The Cornhuskers were upset by a four-loss Texas team. Florida was now the top available team, and had somehow doubled back to get a rematch with Florida State, something the Gators clinched with an easy win over Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
The Rose Bowl battle between Arizona State and Ohio State was an excellent football game. Plummer threw a disputed touchdown pass in the second quarter. Ohio State got TD throws from two different quarterbacks in Joe Germaine and Stanley Jackson and led 14-10 going into the fourth quarter.
Ohio State was driving for a clinching score with less than five minutes left. Arizona State’s defense held, and then Brent Burnstein blocked a field goal. ASU’s Derrick Rodgers returned it for a touchdown, though it would be called back because Rodgers had gotten the ball on a forward lateral. Undeterred, Plummer led the Sun Devils down the field and scrambled in from 11 yards out for a touchdown that should have sealed his team’s unbeaten season, national championship hopes, and Florida’s doom.
The Buckeyes had one more rally left though. Two pass interference calls put them on the doorstep and Germaine flipped a short touchdown pass to Daryl Boston with 19 seconds left. Burnstein blocked the extra point and kept it at a three-point game, but there wasn’t enough time for Ohio State’s inability to block him to come back and bite.
After all this, we were back where we started in late September–it was Florida-Florida State and the winner would be an undisputed national champion.
Rematches are rarely fair in college football–it’s too tough to beat a good team twice, but in this case, Florida made a convincing case. They led 14-3 early and though the lead was cut to 28-20 in the third quarter, the Gators tore off four unanswered touchdowns.
Though the rematch was not fair, Florida could reasonably say they lost a close game on the road and won in a rout on a neutral site. With a 52-20 win, the school had won its first national championship.