When Florida Governor LeRoy Collins personally asked University of Florida President J. Wayne Reitz to schedule an annual game with Florida State University more than a half century ago, neither men could have anticipated what the rivalry would be today. The modern FSU was only 10 years old (it was previously Florida State College for Women) and was competing with Florida for state funding. Fortunately for college football, Reitz agreed and the two schools first played in 1958.
There have been many great games in this series, but there has not been a more intense period than between November 1994 and January 1997, when these two teams faced each other five times. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
Florida 31, Florida State 31
Tallahassee – Nov. 26, 1994
Legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant famously said, “A tie is like kissing your sister,” but Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden saw this game as “[snatching] a tie from the jaws of defeat.” Down 31-3 in Doak Campbell Stadium with less than 13 minutes to play, the Seminoles put four wide receivers on the field and it proved overwhelming for Florida’s soft zone defense. Quarterback Danny Kanell led touchdown drives of 84, 60, 73 and 60 yards, with the final one ending with 1:45 to go. Bowden, who was a bit of gambler, could have gone for two, but a wise gambler knows when not to press his good fortune, and instead he opted for the extra point. It worked out because the schools would meet in the postseason for the first time only five weeks later.
Florida State 23, Florida 17 (1995 Sugar Bowl)
New Orleans – Jan. 2, 1995
The tie was known as the “Choke at the Doak.” The rematch was dubbed “Unfinished Business: The Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter.” The 1995 Sugar Bowl is the only time two teams have ever met in a bowl game after tying each other during the regular season. The Seminoles appeared to carry their momentum from November into this game and jumped out to a 20-10 halftime lead. FSU kicker Dan Mowrey added another field goal to make the score 23-10, but the Gators would not go quietly into the Louisiana night. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel led the team on an 80-yard drive that he culminated with a one-yard touchdown run to make the score 23-17. Wuerffel got the ball back on the Gators’ 19-yard line with 2:27 to go, but any hopes for a comeback attempt ended with FSU linebacker Derrick Brooks’ interception.
Florida 35, Florida State 24
Gainesville – Nov. 25, 1995
The undefeated Gators entered the game ranked No. 3 with a shot at playing for the national championship. Florida State was playing mainly playing for pride and in-state bragging rights, as an upset loss to Virginia three weeks earlier had ended the Seminoles’ national championship hopes. On this day, pride would be no match for Florida. The Gators jumped out to a 28-6 lead, which became a 35-14 cushion in the third quarter. Second-ranked Ohio State lost to Michigan during this game, which resulted in the Gators moving up to No. 2 following their win in The Swamp. Florida then beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game to earn a shot at top-ranked Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, the Gators success ended out in Tempe, as the Cornhuskers cruised 62-24 in one of most lopsided national championship games in history.
Florida State 24, Florida 21
Tallahassee – Nov. 30, 1996
The Gators had put the Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska behind them and had steamrolled their opponents, entering their regular-season finale ranked No. 1. Just behind them at No. 2 was undefeated Florida State. This is the only time these two schools have met holding the top two spots in the rankings. The game had the feeling of a “Rocky” fight with each team trying to survive the others’ blitzkriegs. First, Florida State jumped out to a 17-0 first quarter lead on the strength of its defense, which amassed six sacks during the game, and Warrick Dunn’s legs. Florida battled back in the second quarter, as eventual Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel hooked up with Jacquez Green twice for touchdowns to make it a 17-14 Seminoles lead at the half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Seminole fullback Pooh Bear Williams smashed into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game to put the Seminoles up 24-14. Wuerffel hit Reidel Anthony for a touchdown with 1:19 remaining, but the onside kick failed and FSU ran out the clock. As Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden got into his SUV with his grandchildren after the game knowing his team was positioned to play for the national title, he probably had no idea that his next game would be against the Gators.
Florida 52, Florida State 20 (1997 Sugar Bowl)
New Orleans – Jan. 2, 1997
The week after the two teams met in the regular season, third-ranked Nebraska was upset by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game. The fourth-ranked Gators, realizing they once again had a shot at playing for the national title, took care of business against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Since second-ranked Arizona State was committed to playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the only option for the Sugar Bowl was a Florida vs. Florida State rematch.
Earlier that Jan. 2, Arizona State was upset by Ohio State out in Pasadena, Calif., making Sunshine State Sugar Bowl for all the marbles. This time, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, who had been maligned by sportswriters and Gator fans for his coaching performance in the first game against the Seminoles, implemented an offensive attack that worked extremely well. The two teams battled back and forth through the first half with FSU kicking a field goal in the third quarter to close Florida’s lead to 24-20. Then the floodgates opened. Florida scored 28 unanswered points as Danny Wuerffel threw for one touchdown and scrambled 16 yards for another. The win gave Florida its first national title.
The rivalry will no doubt have high points in the future, but as for now, those 26 months in the 1990s were its zenith.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)