The state of Florida is known for its football today, but that wasn’t always the case. When Steve Spurrier came to the Sunshine State’s flagship program in Gainesville, the Gators had never formally won an SEC championship. They did finish first in 1984, but probation nullified the title. In Spurrier’s first year of 1990, Florida again finished first…and was again on probation. Finally, they won an official SEC crown in 1991 and got the conference’s Sugar Bowl bid. They lost that game to Notre Dame. The 1993 Florida football team finished the job—won the SEC, won the Sugar Bowl and finished in the national top five to boot.
Spurrier’s teams were renowned for their high-octane passing games that spread the field. And the ‘Ol Ball Coach himself was renowned for having a quick hook with his quarterbacks. That resulted in both Danny Wuerffel and Terry Dean sharing time behind center and both put up good numbers. Wuerffel and Dean each completed nearly 60 percent of their passes, each averaged better than eight yards per attempt and combined to throw 39 touchdown passes.
Jack Jackson was the top target, a second-team All-American who caught 51 passes for 949 yards. Willie Jackson was a reliable second target, with his 49 receptions adding up to 675 yards. In the Spurrier offense, running backs needed to catch the football. Errict Rhett did that, with 36 catches to go along with his nearly 1,300 yards rushing. Rhett ran behind an offensive line that included All-SEC performers in Jim Watson, Reggie Green and Jason Odom.
All told, Florida averaged 40 points per game, the third-best in the nation. The defense was a little shakier, but still ranked 25th nationally in points allowed.
Spurrier had raised the bar in Gainesville and the Gators were #9 in the preseason national polls. They tuned up with an easy 44-6 win over Arkansas State. A road trip to Lexington to play an average Kentucky team nearly tripped Florida up. They needed Spurrier’s first pitching change of the season, when he summoned Wuerffel for the second half to pull out a 24-20 win.
The SEC East of the 1990s always pointed to the Florida-Tennessee game and that matchup was the third game of the season.
The Gators went to Knoxville where the Vols were sitting at #5 in the national polls. Tennessee had the eventual SEC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Heath Shuler and they had an explosive running back in Charlie Garner. But they weren’t ready for the Florida offense. The Gators had a 21-0 lead before anyone even settled in. Wuerffel threw three touchdowns while Rhett ran for 147 yards. Tennessee closed to within 41-34 in the final two minutes, but the game ended there, a deceptively close final score.
Florida took a week off and then picked up where they left off, blasting subpar teams in Mississippi State and LSU, scoring 96 points in the process. The Gators were #4 in the country and going on the road to play 10th-ranked Auburn.
Once again, the Florida offense came out firing. They were up 10-0 quickly and in position for more. Then an interception came back 95 yards the other way. Instead of being up 17-zip, the lead was cut to 10-7. Florida still led 27-14 at the half, but failing to deliver the knockout blow early was costly. Auburn came all the way back, tied the game 35-all and then won it on a last-play field goal. The Gators slipped to #10 in the polls.
After a week off, Florida beat mediocre Georgia 33-26 in the annual battle in Jacksonville. The Gators pasted Louisiana 61-14. Florida closed out conference play and sewed up the SEC East with a 37-26 win at South Carolina and a 52-0 blasting of Vanderbilt.
There were two tests left—the rivalry game with Florida State and the SEC Championship Game with Alabama. The Seminoles were ranked #1 in the country. The Crimson Tide were the defending national champions.
Gator pass protection didn’t hold up at home against FSU. Wuerffel was sacked six times and Florida dug themselves a 27-7 hole. They rallied to within 27-21 and had the Seminoles facing a 3rd-and-10 deep in their own end. But that third down play turned into a Florida State touchdown and the game ended a 33-21 loss.
There was still the matter of getting back to the Sugar Bowl. Auburn had been the best team in the SEC West and was undefeated, but they were on probation. Alabama came in 8-2-1 and slumping a bit as the season ended. But they were still the Tide, still the defending champs and this was the last year that the SEC Championship Game was played in Birmingham, offering ‘Bama a homefield advantage.
It was Terry Dean’s turn in the quarterback juggling. Florida held a 14-13 lead in the third quarter. They tried a fake punt near midfield and it worked. Dean promptly hit Jackson with a 43-yard touchdown pass. Later, facing 2nd-and-32 on the Alabama 33-yard line, Dean connected with Jackson on another long scoring strike. Florida won 28-13.
They were sitting at #8 in the polls and had a good opportunity in New Orleans. West Virginia was undefeated and ranked #3. While the national championship was expected to be decided by the 1 vs. 2 Orange Bowl battle between Florida State and Nebraska, the Mountaineers were hoping to stake a claim to a split championship. Winning this game would be a marquee ending to Florida’s season.
Florida spotted West Virginia the first touchdown. Then a Gator deluge quickly followed. Ericct Rhett ran for 105 yards and three touchdowns. With the game tied 7-7, defensive back Lawrence Wright picked off a pass and took it 52 yards to the house. A touchdown throw by Dean gave Florida a 14-point lead going into the locker room.
A pair of short touchdown runs by Rhett put the game away in the second half and two fourth quarter field goals made the final score 41-7. Willie Jackson hauled in nine passes for 131 yards. Florida had waited until 1990 to finish first in the SEC for the first time, only to see their title not recognized because of probation.
Florida’s ascent to the national elite continued with a #5 ranking in the final polls. Two years later, they continued the climb by playing for the national championship. In 1996, they finished the journey by winning it all.