ON SUNDAY, six days before the Game, a tent village hummed with
anticipation in the shadow of Doak Campbell Stadium in
Tallahassee, as Florida State students queued up for probably
the most prized ticket they would ever use. Already the energy
was growing, feeding off the rare combustion of neighbors
playing football for the very highest stakes, No. 1 Florida
facing No. 2 Florida State on the last Saturday in November.
"One versus two, right here in Florida," said Seminoles senior
wideout Andre Cooper. "That's a lifetime dream right there."
The two schools, separated by 149 miles of flat highway, have
played each other annually for 38 years. Theirs is a rivalry
pockmarked by stubborn beginnings (Florida didn't want any part
of playing Florida State, which had been a women's college until
1947, but state politicians forced the Gators' hand), social
rancor (Florida fans think they're so much smarter, richer and
classier than Seminoles fans that the Tallahassee chapter of the
Gators' booster club has as its motto, Civilization among the
savages) and uneven stakes (one team has always needed the game
just a little more than the other).
Even as they have become dominant teams in the 1990s, first
Florida State under Bobby Bowden and then Florida under Steve
Spurrier, their paths have never crossed at quite the right
time. Never have the Seminoles and the Gators met while both
were ranked so high and while both sported unblemished records.
Florida, with a 10-0 record, has been lodged at No. 1 since late
September. Florida State, also 10-0, rose from No. 3 to No. 2
following Ohio State's upset loss to Michigan last Saturday. The
winner this Saturday will be No. 1; the loser all but falls out
of the chase for the national championship. It is single
elimination between brothers, the most significant game in
determining the national champion.
Late Sunday afternoon, Bowden hustled into the Florida State
athletic complex and stopped at the elevator that would take him
to his office and a long night of preparation. "A matter of time
till this happened," said Bowden. "Yes, it was, a matter of
time." He punched a button and disappeared behind the closing
December 2, 1996
The game will be a matter of matchups and emotions, of
strategies and split-second decisions. Five factors will decide
1. THE FLORIDA STATE PASS RUSH
Florida senior Danny Wuerffel's toughness and his compatibility
with Spurrier's pass-happy system have made him not only one of
the most effective quarterbacks in college football
history--he's thrown 105 career touchdown passes and is the
alltime NCAA Division I-A passing-efficiency leader--but also
the likely Heisman Trophy winner. The Gators carve up teams that
drop seven or eight men into coverage in hopes of confusing
Wuerffel, and they rain touchdowns on teams that blitz. In the
last two seasons only Nebraska has stopped Florida. In their
62-24 pasting of the Gators in last January's Fiesta Bowl, the
Cornhuskers sacked Wuerffel seven times, using occasional
blitzes but mostly getting to him with swift outside rushes by
defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich and a consistent
inside push from tackles Christian Peter and Jason Peter. "It's
the ideal thing, to get to him with four men," says Bowden.
Florida State, which is ranked first in the nation in total
defense, has the personnel to try. A crucial matchup will pit
Florida's wounded offensive line against the Seminoles' front
four, a unit led by menacing ends Reinard Wilson and Peter
Boulware, who between them have 68 career sacks. "You have to
worry more about their ends than anything else on their football
team defensively," says North Carolina coach Mack Brown, whose
team lost to Florida State 13-0 on Sept. 28.
The pressure will be on the Gators' offensive line: Because of
injuries (senior center Jeff Mitchell is out with a broken leg,
and sophomore left tackle Zach Piller is questionable with a
sprained leg) and the midseason, six-game suspension of
sophomore right tackle Mo Collins, Florida has started five
combinations up front and is likely to start a sixth on
Saturday. "Not the way we would have scripted it," says senior
right guard Donnie Young. Either Piller or redshirt freshman
Cooper Carlisle will line up across from Boulware; Collins will
Wuerffel will get more pressure from fewer men than he has since
the Nebraska loss. Expect Spurrier to double-team Boulware or
Wilson with his tight end--"You can't single-block those guys,"
says North Carolina State junior fullback Carlos King--and
counter by running more than usual. The Gators have rushed the
ball on 53.4% of their offensive plays, more than any of
Spurrier's other Florida teams. "Those [defensive] ends take
wide splits," says Gators wideout Reidel Anthony. "We can run it
right up inside them."
2. THE SEMINOLES' THIN SECONDARY
Even though Florida State's cornerbacks are its weakest link,
Bowden has left them in man-to-man coverage for most of the
year. That's a risky proposition against any team, but a
potentially fatal move against the Gators. LSU put its corners
in bump-and-run against Florida wideouts Anthony, Ike Hilliard
and Jacquez Green in a game on Oct. 12, and the Gators didn't
stop scoring touchdowns until the following Tuesday. Final
score: 56-13. "When I see somebody come up tight and press me, I
take it as a challenge," says Anthony. "I also think he's in big
If Boulware and Wilson don't take Wuerffel to the ground on the
pass rush, Florida State's five rotating corners (seniors Byron
Capers and James Colzie are the starters) will be under fire.
They may feel the heat regardless: In Florida State's 34-16
victory over Miami on Oct. 12, the Seminoles' defensive line
kept intense pressure on Hurricanes quarterback Ryan Clement,
yet Clement still shredded the Florida State secondary for 267
yards and two touchdowns.
3. THE DUNN FACTOR
Florida State's Warrick Dunn is a proven threat. Dunn, a 5'9",
185-pound tailback, runs, catches, occasionally throws and plays
much bigger than he is. "He's the truth," says Florida senior
safety Lawrence Wright. Three times this season Dunn has scored
touchdowns from at least 65 yards out. The problem for the
Seminoles is, he draws more attention than Carolyn Bessette
Kennedy on a shopping spree. "About everybody we play loads all
up on Warrick," says Bowden.
Dunn already owns a piece of history in this rivalry. In 1993 as
an introverted 18-year-old freshman, he scored the decisive
touchdown--a thrilling 79-yard catch-and-run from Charlie
Ward--in Florida State's 33-21 victory at Florida Field. The
mention of the play causes Spurrier to jump from his office
chair as if he's been jabbed with a cattle prod. Nearly three
years have gone by since that game, and yet he begins drawing
the Dunn play with blue grease pencil on a white board. "We were
coming back, and there was so much noise, I don't think they
even had a play called," Spurrier says. "Charlie just kind of
rolled out a little, threw it out there to Warrick, two of our
guys knocked each other down, and there he goes." Spurrier makes
a clicking sound, shakes his head and tosses the grease pencil
back into the tray. "One of those plays," he says.
The Seminoles have put the ball in Dunn's hands an average of
19.1 times a game this year, more in key games (28 touches
against Virginia, 24 against North Carolina, 22 against Miami)
than in little ones. "To have a chance to beat Florida State,
you have to keep Dunn from making the big play," says North
Carolina's Brown. Teams have shadowed Dunn with linebackers
(lots of luck) and strong safeties in hopes of limiting his
impact. The Gators will do likewise, often with Wright. "Best
way to use Warrick might be as a decoy," says Bowden. Don't
believe it. Count on Dunn for a minimum of 20 carries and five
pass receptions. Florida's defense has given up long runs in
each of its last two games, missing tackles and overrunning
plays. The Gators should be scared to death of Dunn.
4. STOOPS' TROOPS
Florida's new, attacking defense--which lines up eight men in
the "box" near the line of scrimmage, blitzes frequently and
employs man-to-man coverage on the outside--has been a roaring
success. The Gators have limited opponents to 4.91 plays per
drive (compared with 5.72 a year ago) and forced three-and-outs
on 40% of opponents' possessions (up from 33.6% last year). The
scheme was installed by first-year defensive coordinator Bob
Stoops, who used it with great success at Kansas State, and it
has done just what Spurrier hoped it would when he hired
Stoops--prevented opponents from holding the ball on long,
clock-eating drives that keep the Gators' offense off the field.
"It's the perfect defense for Steve Spurrier," says Auburn coach
Terry Bowden, whose team lost 51-10 to Florida on Oct. 19. "It
shuts down the controlled passing game and keeps you from
playing a slow offense to stay in the game."
Stoops' scheme, however, hasn't been tested over the course of
an entire game by a team with Florida State's level of talent.
Tennessee had the best offense and the best chance to roll up
points of any team Florida has faced this season, but in their
Sept. 21 matchup with the Gators, the Volunteers fell apart in
the first quarter and trailed 35-0 before losing 35-29. "To beat
Florida's defense, you need offensive players like Florida's,"
says Terry Bowden. "The true test for the Gators' defenders
would be if they were playing themselves, or if Florida State's
quarterback were to get hot."
That quarterback is junior Thad Busby, and he will be the
Seminoles' key to ending Stoops' honeymoon, providing Busby's
not hampered by a strained medial collateral ligament in his
left knee; he suffered the injury last Saturday in a 48-10
victory over Maryland. Busby is a 6'3", 220-pound former high
school All-America with a good arm and decent feet who has
suffered in comparison with his two most recent predecessors. He
is neither as versatile as Ward nor as classic as Danny Kanell,
who was a superb pocket passer, but possesses qualities of both.
However, because Busby earned the starting job only this year,
he is still learning, still growing, still inconsistent. "A
first-year quarterback," says Bowden, resignedly.
When Busby is off, he fails to throw the ball away to avoid
sacks or he locks onto receivers and forces throws into
coverage. Against North Carolina, which runs a defense very
similar to Florida's, he completed only nine passes for 65 yards
and tossed two interceptions. Against Georgia Tech, another team
with a solid defense, Busby completed only 11 of 22 passes and
was intercepted three times. He has been at his best against
weaker defenses--and Florida's D is certainly not weak. Count on
Stoops to bring the house down on him, to put him under as much
pressure as Wuerffel will face, making it imperative that he
find Dunn on flares and shovel passes. Busby is the only player
on the field who must play the best game of his career for his
team to win.
5. THE MEMORY OF 62-24
There has been a fierce purpose to the Gators' season, driven by
thoughts of a brilliant 1995 season that turned into an
embarrassment in Tempe. "They appear to believe in themselves
more this year than a year ago," says LSU coach Gerry DiNardo.
It's a small edge in a big game, but small things count for
much. Wuerffel is a little too good for Boulware and Wilson to
crush. Florida's defense is a little too good for Busby and
Dunn. In the end Florida will not only own the state and the
rivalry, but also stand a little bit closer to redemption.