Neil Blackmon | 3 years ago
Saturday will mark the 65th meeting between Florida and Florida State, making the rivalry relatively young compared to some of college football’s more historic rivalries.
Don’t let that fool you, though. Just because Florida and Florida State haven’t met 1115 times like Michigan and Ohio State or 124 times like Georgia and Auburn doesn’t mean the rivalry is any less heated or lacks a historic punch.
This rivalry was born, as many college football rivalries are, out of parochial big brother bitterness. The Florida State College for Women became coeducational after World War II, rebranding as FSU, and after establishing a football program, they more or less immediately began asking to play the Gators.
Florida, the old boys school, didn’t like being told what to do, so they balked at playing the game for a while, considering FSU beneath them. Eventually, however, Florida governor LeRoy Collins intervened, arranging the first game between the two schools in 1958. They have played at least once every year since, and both have maintained their dismissive views of the other. To Florida State, Gators are smug snobs, an old money college that thinks it is too good to take on all comers. To the Gators, FSU is the annoying little brother, a less prestigious academic institution and one that under Bobby Bowden was too scared to join the big boys in the SEC.
Like most big in-state college football rivalries, the bitterness — and bragging rights — extend beyond the gridiron. Seminoles and Gators share work spaces, charitable endeavors and in some instances, marry and share homes.
“A win over Georgia is more important when it comes to season goals and feels good,” Steve Spurrier once remarked. “But a win over Florida State lasts the entire year.”
Of course, when Spurrier was at Florida and Bowden at Florida State, a win in this rivalry game usually meant championships. The programs played 14 times in Spurrier’s tenure at Florida, with Florida winning 5, FSU winning 8 and one famous, or infamous, depending on your side, tie. In every one of those games, at least one program entered the game ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll. In the 11 games played between the programs from 1991-2000, both were ranked in the top 10. A remarkable 6 times in that span, both were ranked in the top 5. How impactful was the game on a national scale? In 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, the winner of the Florida-Florida State game went on the play for the national championship.
Those types of stakes naturally created some great games, and Spurrier vs. Bowden is part of college football lore, especially down South.
Including the best of those contests, here’s a list of the 5 greatest Florida-Florida State games ever played. Let the debate begin.
2003: No. 9 FSU 38, No. 11 Florida 34 (“The Swindle in The Swamp”)
Historians record the 2003 Florida-Florida State game as a 38-34 Seminoles victory, and under usual circumstances, the main process story after a terrific back and forth football game would have been the postgame brawl that ensued when FSU tried to dance on the “F” at midfield following their win in The Swamp.
Instead, the brawl, and a terrific football game, took a backseat to the officiating crew, led by longtime referee Jack Childress. Dubbed “Black Jack Childress” by Gators fans for posterity, Childress’ ACC crew made multiple “fumble” or “no fumble” calls that all went in favor of FSU, changing the tenor, and likely the outcome, of the game. National writers were even incensed, noting th missed calls “changed the game,” and ACC Commissioner John Swofford eventually apologized to Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley.
Foley insisted on accountability anyway, and two changes that remain a part of college football today were accelerated thanks to FSU’s stolen victory.
The first was that full discussions were held on instant replay the next summer, with replay eventually being implemented in 2006. The second was that officials from the home team’s conference now handle rivalry games — a change that went into effect immediately the following season.
2004: Florida 20, No. 10 FSU 13 (“Ron Zook Field”)
In what remains the last great upset in this rivalry, Florida and head coach Ron Zook headed to Tallahassee in 2004 a 6-win outfit playing for nothing but pride and Zook, who had been fired the previous month.
The Seminoles, meanwhile, were 8-2, ranked in the top 10 and dedicating their home field to Bobby Bowden, the legendary coach who put FSU football on the national map.
Zook and the Gators spoiled the party, largely thanks to physical running back Ciatrick Fason, who gained 103 yards on 24 bruising carries, helping the Gators control the clock and with it, the football game. Florida’s defense did the rest, limiting FSU quarterbacks — Chris Rix and Wyatt Sexton — to under a 50% completion percentage on 49 pass attempts and stuffing the FSU run game, which managed only 34 yards.
After the final whistle, the Gators carried Zook, a players coach to the end, off the field on their shoulders, his final game as Florida’s head coach proving to be his finest hour.
Florida fans haven’t forgotten, and many still refer to Bobby Bowden Field as “Ron Zook Field” instead.
1997: No. 10 Florida 32, No. 1 FSU 29 (“The Greatest Game Ever Played in The Swamp)
The Seminoles entered ranked No. 1 and, in truth, almost no one had been close. The Seminoles’ average margin of victory in 1997 was 27.3 points per game, and the Noles entered The Swamp ranked 2nd in the nation in total offense and 3rd in total defense. Florida, the defending national champion, was a home underdog for only the 3rd time in the Spurrier era (all vs. FSU).
The Seminoles jumped out to a double-digit lead in the 1st half and appeared to be capable of doing whatever they wanted against the Gators’ defense.
But Florida rallied, using a bizarre 2-quarterback system that only made sense to Steve Spurrier. Spurrier, wary of FSU’s tendency to disguise defenses until just before the snap under venerable coordinator Mickey Andrews, decided to rotate quarterbacks Noah Brindise and Doug Johnson on every snap, so, to quote Spurrier, he “could coach them up in the play they weren’t in the game.”
“I did not think it would work. I was skeptical, very skeptical,” Brindise recalled.
Brindise, a Division II quarterback transfer and former walk-on, hit a big pass to Travis McGriff to help pace Florida’s comeback, and when All-American running back Fred Taylor scored the 2nd of his 4 touchdowns in the game late in the 2nd quarter, the Gators had somehow taken a 18-17 lead into halftime.
The Noles fought back, taking a 26-25 lead in the 4th quarter, which they extended to 29-25 after a Peter Warrick punt return set the stage for a Sebastian Janikowski field goal with only 2:30 remaining. After Janikowsi nailed the chip shot kick, he Gator chomped at the Florida sideline and then student section. The FSU band then played “Fanfare,” a song a Marching Chief told me is “reserved for when victory is secure,” and the Gators, who had struggled to move the ball in the 2nd half, seemed destined to fall just short.
Most older Gators can recite what happened next.
Jacquez Green torched Samari Rolle on a hitch and go route, setting Florida up inside the Seminoles’ 20-yard line. Taylor bulldozed his way off left tackle to the 2, and then plunged into the end zone a play later, sending The Swamp into delirium.
Florida’s 80 yards in 3 plays touchdown drive gave the Gators a 32-29 lead, and the victory was sealed a possession later when senior linebacker Dwayne Thomas intercepted a desperation Thad Busby heave on FSU’s final drive.
No. 4 Florida 31, No. 7 FSU 31 (“The Choke at Doak”)
Both teams entered the game very much in the national championship conversation, with equal 9-1 records.
The Gators stormed to a 31-3 lead, thanks to an avalanche of Danny Wuerffel created touchdowns, including 2 beautiful throws to Jack Jackson. Florida State fans were headed to the exits in droves with FSU trailing by 4 touchdowns as the 4th quarter began, and few thought much of it when the Noles scored to cut the lead to 31-10 with just under 13 minutes to play.
In a rare move, however, Steve Spurrier got conservative on offense, mostly opting to hand the ball off to Fred Taylor and run clock. The Seminoles stuffed the Florida run and quickly got the ball back. With Bobby Bowden taking over play-calling duties, the Seminoles threw a series of short wide receiver screens and swing passes to Warrick Dunn to take what Florida’s soft zone would give them, quickly scoring again to make it a 2-score game with 10 minutes to play.
After another Florida punt, Danny Kanell led yet another Seminoles scoring drive, again keyed by short passes underneath Florida’s zone.
For a moment, it appeared as if the Seminoles’ rally would fall short, as Florida gained a first down and needed only one or two more to run the clock out. But then Wuerffel was intercepted by James Colzie, and FSU was in business.
The Seminoles scored on a Rock Preston 4-yard touchdown run after only a few plays, cutting the lead to one.
With his coaching staff and his veteran leaders pleading with him to go for the 2-point conversion and the win (college football had no overtime), Bowden took a timeout to think it over.
“Everyone on the sideline wanted him to go for 2. They wouldn’t have stopped us,” Danny Kanell reflected this summer, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the game that would become known as “The Choke at Doak.”
Bowden elected to kick the extra point, overruling the fans, coaching staff and team, and FSU settled for a famous– or in Florida’s case, infamous– tie.
“In the end, I get why coach Bowden kicked,” Kanell said. “He didn’t want us to have done all that work only to lose the game. But it worked out OK, because we had the chance to play them again at the Sugar Bowl and won.”
Jan. 2, 1997: No. 3 Florida 52, No. 1 FSU 20 (“Florida wins the natty”)
How often do rivalry games decide the national champion?
LSU and Alabama played for the national championship in 2011, no matter how hard I try to block that 21-0 snoozefest out of my memory.
Before there was that game, though, there was Danny Wuerffel exacting revenge on the Seminoles on Bourbon Street.
FSU had bested the Gators 24-21 in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at Doak Campbell Stadium to close the season, but the Gators rallied to defeat Alabama and capture the SEC Championship a week later and ultimately, Florida was given a second shot at FSU in the Sugar Bowl.
The Gators made the most of the opportunity.
Terrorized by a dominant FSU pass rush in the first meeting, Spurrier put Wuerffel in the shotgun for the Sugar Bowl, buying his Heisman winner the second of extra time he needed to put the ball in the hands of his all-world receiving corps, led by Ike Hilliard, who performed an act of cruelty to the FSU secondary.
The Gators blew what was a close game at halftime wide open in the 2nd half, pouring it on to defeat their rival 52-20, and leaving no doubt in the minds of voters as to who the best college football team in America was in 1996.
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Neil Blackmon covers Florida football and the SEC for SaturdayDownSouth.com. An attorney and two-time graduate of the University of Florida, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He also coaches basketball. You can follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.