Spoiler alert: The greatest games of the Florida-Florida State rivalry are connected to Bobby Bowden or Steve Spurrier in some way. Hint: This is true even for games not played when both men were head coaches for the two schools.
At least one of the two figures was either on the field or part of the coaching staff for the most significant moments in a series which began in 1958 at the Division I level.
We begin this series of the greatest UF-FSU games of all time by noting the moment when the antipathy between Bowden and Spurrier reached its height.
The year was 1996. Florida had its best team of the 20th century. The 2008 Florida team would have an argument to make as the greatest Gator team of all time, but the 1996 team also has a place in that conversation.
Florida State was smack-dab in the middle of its glory run of 14 straight seasons with a top-five finish in the Associated Press polls. The Seminoles simply never fell off the ledge, never had a rebuilding year, never had a reorganization or a horrible quarterback who hijacked a season.
They were fierce, formidable and elite without fail Their 1996 team wasn’t the best of all time, but if we had a College Football Playoff back then, there’s no way the Noles would have played Florida in the 1997 Sugar Bowl.
The playoff would have cross-paired the top four teams. Florida State would have played Ohio State in the Superdome while Arizona State would have played Florida in Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Maybe FSU and Florida would have won those semifinals, but in the system of 1996, it was brutally unfair for the Noles to meet Florida in a rematch without the two teams playing additional games in between.
Why? Florida State thought it had done enough to destroy Florida’s national championship dreams in the Seminoles’ 1996 regular-season finale.
This wasn’t a dazzling game or an artistic game, but it remains the most physical headcracker of a slugfest the Gators and Noles have ever played. Sportswriters are taught to not compare football to war, because war is where people die. A game is not a war. A game is not a matter of life and death.
This 1996 game came close.
Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware were Florida State’s bookend pass rushers They led an assault on Florida quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel which netted six sacks and 20 — TWENTY! — knockdowns. It was one of the most savage beatings a quarterback has ever received. Yet, Wuerffel kept getting off the canvas after taking those hits, trying to lead the Gators back.
It’s not as though Wuerffel was inept — anything but. Florida still managed 443 yards against that ferocious pass rush. What Florida State’s pass rush did, however, was make it hard for Wuerffel to hit the deep ball down the field. Florida’s receivers weren’t able to get separation on vertical routes with Wuerffel lacking the time needed to survey the field from the pocket. Florida made the adjustment of putting Wuerffel in the shotgun to gain more spatial separation from Wilson and Boulware… but that adjustment by Spurrier didn’t come until the Sugar Bowl a month later.
On this day — November 30, 1996 — that adjustment didn’t come. Florida State, Bowden, and Mickey Andrews exposed Spurrier’s protections. They created the street fight they wanted and knocked the rhythmic Fun and Gun offense off balance.
Even with FSU’s defensive superiority evident from start to finish, Florida still played the game extremely close. The Gators might have forced overtime — 1996 was the first season without ties in college football, if you remember — had kicker Bart Edmiston made a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. However, Edmiston stepped into a rut in the chewed-up playing surface and missed. Edmiston, Collins Cooper, and other Gator kickers haunted Spurrier in Gainesville, in much the same way that Alabama kickers have made life difficult for Nick Saban and Boise State or Washington placekickers have gut-punched Chris Petersen.
Another man who knew what it was like for kickers to cost him in big games: Bobby Bowden, who watched Edmiston’s miss from the other sideline and knew what it felt like for a team to miss a big kick. This time, he benefited from a missed kick in a rivalry game against another Sunshine State team.
The kicker who didn’t miss when he needed to deliver for Florida State was Scott Bentley. He hit a game-winning kick in the 1994 Orange Bowl game against Nebraska which gave Bowden his first national title in Tallahassee. He was on the 1996 FSU team as a senior. He empathized with Edmiston after the game:
”I felt for him,” said Bentley, who made his only field goal attempt from 26 yards in that 1996 game. ”I’ve kicked here on this field. This field shouldn’t be like this. It’s a disgrace.”
What Spurrier viewed as even more of a disgrace was the avalanche of hits on Wuerffel. Spurrier felt many of them were late. Bowden’s memorable characterization of that game — and what happened to Wuerffel that afternoon — was that his teams hit “until the echo of the whistle.”
Spurrier’s anger was captured in this quote: “He (Wuerffel) is like a New Testament person. He gets slapped up side the face, and turns the other cheek and says, ‘Lord, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.’ I’m probably more of an Old Testament guy. You spear our guy in the earhole, we think we’re supposed to spear you in the earhole. That’s kind of where we’re a little different.”
Spurrier’s anger at Bowden and FSU was channeled into his preparation for the Sugar Bowl. Florida fans received what they felt was justice after the beating Wuerffel absorbed. Florida State fans lamented the rematch they felt the Gators didn’t earn (caused by Nebraska’s loss to Texas in the first Big 12 Championship Game). This would not be the last time a regular-season game had a championship-game rematch in the Superdome, won by the loser of the regular-season contest. Alabama-LSU in January of 2012 — after LSU won the regular-season game in November of 2011 — replicated that same scenario.
The 1996 Florida-Florida State game was not great because of its style points or its aesthetic qualities. It was great because of the ferocity with which it was contested, the memorable reactions it generated from its central protagonists, and its complicated place in the workings of the Spurrier-Bowden feud which made Gators-Seminoles so irresistibly captivating in its glory days.
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