How Florida and Florida State Met in the 1995 Sugar Bowl
The famed Al Michaels query – “Do you believe in miracles?…YES!” – echoed across time, space and sports.
If there was ever any doubt that miracles do indeed happen, even in sports, it was dispelled in the collective mind of the Sugar Bowl of 1995, a decade and a half after the notes sportscaster made it famous at an Olympic hockey match.
The Sugar Bowl was in a vise. It was no joke, and there was no minimizing it. The way College Football ’95 shook out, the Sugar was in a quandary. Florida and Alabama were Top 10 SEC teams, but there were very few viable opponents to pair either up with in the postseason. Nebraska and Penn State, the nation’s top two teams, were ticketed by conference affiliation to the Orange and Rose bowls, respectively; Miami, as usual, wanted to stay home to play the Huskers; the Sugar couldn’t take Colorado, the second place Big Eight team, and then have to go against the Orange and Big Eight champion Cornhuskers at the same time on TV.
Florida State was there, but the Seminoles had a date with their archival Gators on Nov. 26. An FSU pairing with undefeated Alabama would be dynamite, but if Florida beat ‘Bama for the SEC championship, the Sugar Bowl would then have to talk reluctant participants into a second “Braggin’ Rights” game. All parties have to agree on any bowl pairing of teams that have met during the regular season, and that wasn’t likely with such fierce football antagonists.
Still, the Sugar Bowl took measure of the remote possibility – and both the Gators and Seminoles discouraged the notion. Executive Director Troy Mathieu, however, recalled later, “Both said they would consider it (but) only under a few sets of circumstances.”
A tie in their regular-season game was one of those circumstances. Other than that unlikely scenario it strongly appeared the winner of the Southern Cal-Notre Dame game would be the choice of ABC, which televised the Sugar Bowl. Each of those teams would give the Sugar a visitor with more than three defeats. Notre Dame finished 6-4-1 and USC was 7-3-1 after the regular season.
The Sugar Bowl was praying. Hard.
Miracles do happen.
When they played in Tallahassee, the fourth-ranked Gators ran roughshod over the seventh-ranked Seminoles for almost 49 minutes, holding a gargantuan 31-3 lead. Then, with 11 minutes to play, FSU quarterback Danny Kanell dropped into a shotgun, not even trying to fool anyone about his intent to pass, and marshaled his forces. Kanell rocketed the Seminoles to blurring drives 84, 60, 73 and 60 yards. With 1:45 remaining, after Rock Preston scored from the 4-yard line, the Seminoles were in a flabbergasting 31-31 deadlock.
Florida State actually had a chance to win it, but Coach Bobby Bowden changed his mind and sent in kicker Dan Mowrey rather than go for two and chance losing the most stunning comeback in FSU annals.
“I didn’t want to lose the game,” Bowden mused. “I simply didn’t want to lose it. From 31-3 with what was it? Eleven minutes left. Uh-uh, didn’t want to lose that one.”
Had Bowden gone for the two-point conversion and made it, the possibility of a rematch would have gone by the boards with the victory. Had he gone for two and missed it, the defeat would have also precluded any rematch.
To make the events of the day even more miraculous, that night Notre Dame and USC also played to a tie, eliminating both from Sugar Bowl consideration.
“We knew we needed a miracle – and we got it,” Sugar Bowl president Chuck Zatarain gushed after announcing the Seminoles (9-1-1) had agreed to play the SEC champion – even the Gators again, should they defeat unbeaten Alabama in the SEC title game, which Florida (10-1-1) did, 24-23.
It was an important game because the 1995 classic was the last to be played with the old automatic tie-up between the SEC and the Sugar Bowl because of a new bowl configuration, one in which the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange would rotate national championship games.
But the tie-up would go out with a bang, in no small measure because of events with all the earmarks of divine intervention.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.