Florida gets another shot at the national title in tonight’s Sugar Bowl, and all the Gators have to do this time is beat their biggest rival and only team to defeat them this season - No. 1 Florida State.
The third-ranked Gators (11-1) received the help they needed Wednesday when No. 4 Ohio State beat No. 2 Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl. The result left the Seminoles (11-0) as the nation’s only unbeaten team and stamped the Sugar Bowl as a true national title game.
So forget the rematch, forget the revenge, forget the late-hit controversy fueled all week by Gators coach Steve Spurrier. It’s title time on the bayou, Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel vs. All-American ends Peter Boulware and Reinard Wilson.
“This is the national championship game,” Boulware said. “This is for all the marbles. People make a big deal out of us playing Florida again. We’ve got to win this game to win the national championship.”
A Florida win would leave each of the top five teams with one loss. But the Gators have a commanding 85-point lead over the Buckeyes and would likely be No. 1 by winning the Sugar Bowl. BYU (14-1) is ranked fifth and trails the Gators by 217 points.
What the Rose Bowl outcome does is put the Seminoles in a situation coach Bobby Bowden hoped to avoid - giving Florida a chance to avenge two losses with one win. There’s the 24-21 loss Nov. 30 to Florida State and last year’s 62-24 whipping by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl title game.
“I don’t want to play a team again that we beat because I’m afraid they’ll beat us,” Bowden said, adding it was easier to prepare for Florida in the 1995 Sugar Bowl because the teams tied in the regular season.
“So now they have the incentive of we beat them last time and they can pay us back. And we simply have to go out and do it again, and I think that’s a little bit harder.”
Florida finished its final walk-through at the Superdome during halftime of the Rose Bowl and moved into a hotel outside the city.
At the Sugar Bowl headquarters hotel, Gator fans streamed into the hallways when Ohio State sealed its victory, filling the Hyatt Regency with their cheers. At the team hotel in Gonzalez, La., a desk clerk reported hearing cheers when the game ended.
Spurrier told school officials he wouldn’t comment on the Rose Bowl result.
But Bowden had plenty to say after the game.
“Arizona State’s loss solved any potential debate of two undefeated teams and which one should be the champion,” Bowden said. “The Rose Bowl’s outcome means the Sugar Bowl truly is for the national championship. If a vote was taken tonight I assume we would be No. 1 and Florida No. 2.”
The Gators and Seminoles have been going at each other for decades, but just 33 days after playing the 40th and biggest game of the series, this one tops them all. For the 11th time, teams that played in the regular season will meet in a bowl game. There have been four sweeps, and the two times No. 1 teams were involved in rematches - Michigan State in 1965 and Ohio State in 1975 - they both lost.
While the Gators are looking for their first title, FSU is shooting for its second in the last four years.
“This year has been a great run and hopefully we can make it one more game,” said FSU’s Warrick Dunn, who had a career-best 185 yards against Florida last month. “We know we are capable of beating those guys, and the second time around is not going to be any easier than the first time. We can’t really worry about what happened in November.”
Spurrier spiced up Sugar Bowl week with his complaints about late hits and cheap shots against Wuerffel in the first game. On New Year’s Eve, the coaches huddled at a Sugar Bowl dinner.
“We chatted briefly, in a dark corner,” Bowden said, smiling. “I was dreading the dance a lot more than that. No, we had a nice little ol’ talk. I don’t know how he took it.”
Did Spurrier mention the late hits?
“Yeah, he talked a little bit about the late hits. Sure did … I didn’t listen all that much.”
The game itself should be a doozy, with two of the game’s best coaches matching wits. Florida led the nation in scoring at 46.6 points per game, while Florida State allowed 11.1 points per game.