63rd Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 2, 1997
#3 Florida 52 (Final: 12-1, #1)
#1 Florida State 20 (Final: 11-1, #3)
Looking back, you’d have to say Bobby Bowden put the gun to his own head. In a deep irony, it was Florida State which forced Steve Spurrier to do something he said he’d never do: go to a shotgun offense. In the process, Bowden gave Florida a potent weapon for the Sugar Bowl.
How Florida and Florida State Met for the National Championship in the 1997 Sugar Bowl
It went back to Nov. 30, the day the Seminoles beat the Gators 24-21 and savaged quarterback Danny Wuerffel, leaving him bruised and battered. Wuerffel was sacked six times and hit behind the line 21 times.
A week later, facing Alabama for the SEC championship, Spurrier made the shotgun a part of his offense, placing his quarterback five yards behind the center to give him an extra split-second to get off his passes to Florida’s usually gifted receiving corps – and to try to keep Wuerffel out of the emergency room.
The result: Wuerffel passed for six touchdowns against the Crimson Tide, four of them from the shotgun formation.
The stage was set for the Sunshine State rematch – just like the 1994 game – pairing the nation’s best offensive team, Florida, against the nation’s third-best defense, FSU.
As it turned out, the Seminoles were sliced, diced and left for dead.
The Sugar Bowl began with FSU quarterback Thad Busby completing a 33-yard rainbow to Andre Cooper, and the Seminoles going down to a fourth-and-one at the Gators’ 23. Declining the field goal attempt, FSU went for the yard but Reggie McGrew and Mike Peterson stopped Pooh Bear Williams cold.
Wuerffel went to work. Riding shotgun, Wuerffel, keeping his distance from an FSU front that represented a thousand pounds of beef on the hoof, completed five passes for 73 yards, including a nine-yard touchdown to Ike Hilliard, another Louisiana native playing for a Sunshine State program.
That was the start of a volatile first half in which 41 points were scored in a football game that resembled a tennis match for 30 minutes.
When Wuerffel marched the Gators 73 yards in 26 seconds in the second quarter to put Florida in front 17-3, it marked the first time the ‘Noles were behind by more than seven points the entire season. FSU closed to 17-10, only watch the Gators’ shotgun go off one more, this time for 65 yards in four plays. Wuerffel and the Gators’ wide-receiver wrecking crew had the FSU secondary baffled as they operated in near-perfect sync, running slants and stop-and-go routes.
Still, Busby was having a good night, too, and, with the Gators in front 24-10, FSU answered with a fast-break of its own, traveling 66 yards in 77 seconds, the last 12 yards coming on a gallop by Warrick Dunn, who had been silent in a half dominated by the pass and by his own leg cramps.
Intermission came with Florida ahead 24-17, a score largely based on Wuerffel’s 246 yards passing and Busby’s 216.
FSU’s Scott Bentley kicked a 45-yard field goal for the first points of the second half, but that was all the Seminoles wrote. Florida took complete command en route to its ultimate 32-point victory – piling up the most points ever scored by a single team in Sugar Bowl history – and the first national championship in Gators history.
Florida’s 12-1 record merited it, although there were four other teams in America with just one loss (Ohio State, 11-1; Brigham Young, 14-1; Arizona State, 11-1; and, of course, Florida State, 11-1). But put Florida’s accomplishments in perspective: there were four other 1996 SEC teams (Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn) that won bowl games, and Florida beat them all by an average of 26 points.
The victory made amends for the blowout defeat to Nebraska the year before in the Fiesta Bowl, after which ‘Husker defensive coordinator Charlie McBride gave symposiums on stopping the vaunted Gator offense. Spurrier said wryly: “I don’t think anyone’s going to give clinics on how to stop Florida this offseason.”
For sure, no one was up to stopping Wuerffel all season long, and certainly not in the Sugar Bowl. He was the game’s MVP after passing for 306 yards and three touchdowns – all to Hilliard – and running for a fourth.
“Now do you see why we didn’t want to play them again,” said a glum Bobby Bowden afterward.
“If Texas hadn’t beaten Nebraska, if Ohio State hadn’t beaten Arizona State, we wouldn’t be here – we ought to send (Ohio State coach John) Cooper and (Texas coach John) Mackovic a ring or something,” Spurrier said, “because without them we don’t have a chance.”
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.