Your incredibly out of order Florida Week concludes with, finally, a look at the Gators of the gridiron.
The dotted black line is the school's ten-year average.
For more on Est. S&P+, start here.
(Original helmet photo via NationalChamps.net)
Before we dive into Florida's football history (which isn't as Chelsea-like as the basketball team, but still has a bit of Nouveau Riche to it), I'd like to first point out just how weird it must be for Steve Spurrier to be coaching a division rival. He won a Heisman at Florida in the 1960s, returned as the Gators' head coach in the 1990s and brought the program's first national title to Gainesville in 1996. But after a horrific sojourn to the pros in the early-2000s, he ended up at South Carolina. Imagine if Chase Daniel were to lead Missouri to the 2037 national title, then end up coaching at Tennessee 10 years later? Mixed feelings, man, mixed feelings.
Anyway, on with the show. After decades as a decent-to-solid program, Florida truly joined the college football ruling class in the 1990s. That we know. But let's take a look at the pre-Spurrier years.
Worst 10-Year Span
1935-44. Unlike a good portion of the teams we have thus far covered, Florida was actually pretty good through most of the 1920s and early-1930s. They were an early Southern Conference power, going 27-7-4 from 1922-25, then ripping off a 29-9-1 stretch from 1927-30. But when the rest of the South began to surge, it turned out to be a bit of a zero-sum game -- other teams improved, and the Gators fell apart. From 1935 to 1951, Florida enjoyed just one winning season (4-3 in 1944), and while they were rarely truly terrible (0-9 in 1946), and they typically still won 3-5 games a year, they still weren't very good.
Since 1950, it's been a series of small steps forward. Bob Woodruff, who apparently wasn't this guy, took over the reins at Florida after three years at Baylor, and he improved them from okay to solid. He gave them stability, at least. Instead of winning 3-5 games per season, they won 4-6 for most years under Woodruff, though in the brutal SEC, that wasn't bad. His tenure peaked in 1952 with an 8-3 season and Florida's first bowl appearance (appropriately in the Gator Bowl) and a No. 15 final poll position. From 1957-59, Florida never won more than six games but finished ranked at the end of each season thanks to the rough schedule. Also Florida's athletic director, he gave way to Ray Graves after the 1959 season, then ended up serving as Tennessee's athletic director for over 20 years.
Woodruff took the Florida football program a step forward, then Graves did the same. Florida began to win 6-9 games per year in 10 seasons under Graves, went 9-2 in 1960 (with another Gator Bowl win), went to the Sugar Bowl in 1965, went to the Orange Bowl in 1966, and finished his run with a 9-1-1 season and another Gator Bowl win in 1969. In his decade in Gainesville, Florida went 70-31-4 and went to five bowl games. Plus, Graves brought eventual Heisman winner Steve Spurrier to campus and approved the design and use of what would become Gatorade in the mid-1960s. Not a bad legacy.
Graves retired and, like Woodruff, remained as Florida's athletic director. His first act was to steal Tennessee head coach, and Florida alum (he played for Woodruff), Doug Dickey and bring him to Gainesville. His Vols had just won an SEC title and had gone 42-10-3 in the last five years, but he struggled with the Gators. After three iffy seasons (combined record: 16-16-1), Florida made their first of four straight bowl games; they even went to a Sugar Bowl in 1974 and finished second in the SEC in 1975. But he couldn't maintain traction, and after a 4-7 campaign in 1978, he was replaced by Clemson coach Charley Pell. Like Woodruff, he ended up as Tennessee's athletic director for almost two decades.
(It's worth noting that, even though Florida had never seriously challenged for a national title by this point, they were still prestigious enough to steal coaches away from Tennessee and Clemson.)
When Pell came to town, it started a process that was not unlike what Florida Basketball would also go through at the same time: win through shady means in the 1980s, clean up your house, then win even bigger (and cleaner) in the 1990s and 2000s.
A Bear Bryant disciple (and former all-SEC lineman at Alabama), Pell had gone 18-4-1 in two seasons at Clemson; his Tigers went 10-1 in 1978 and finished sixth in the country, easily their best finish to date. After a "hitting the reset button" season in 1979 -- Florida went 0-10-1 -- he immediately began putting together a fast, supremely talented squad. Florida went 8-4 in 1980 (and all but beat eventual national champion Georgia) with 28-year old offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan on staff. They went 7-5 and 8-4 in 1981-82, then broke through with a 9-2-1 finish (and No. 6 final ranking) in 1983. But the NCAA was beginning to sniff around. Three games into the 1984 season, with Florida 1-1-1, the NCAA announced that they had found evidence of 107 major infractions at Florida. One hundred and seven! (They later cut that total down to a more tidy 59.) Florida was banned from the postseason and live television for two years, and they were forced to cut 20 scholarships over a three-year period. Pell was dumped and replaced by former Penn State quarterback Galen Hall, who had replaced Shanahan as offensive coordinator. (Hall was new to the staff and therefore untainted by the infractions.)
Under Hall, things went in a similar direction. A great Florida team finished 9-1-1 in 1984, won the SEC (until May, when SEC university presidents stripped them of the title), and finished third in the country. They went 9-1-1 again in 1985 and finished fifth, but recruiting limitations quickly began to take effect. Florida went just 19-16 from 1986-88. Midway through 1989, however, with Emmitt Smith running wild and Florida preparing to re-enter the Top 25 at 4-1, Hall was fired for further NCAA violations. He evidently still denies the charges of wrongdoing -- paying a player's child support payment, etc. -- but it still got Florida slapped with another postseason ban in 1990.
Florida found itself unexpectedly in the market for another new coach after 1989, but ... I'm thinking they were alright with that.
Best 10-Year Span
1992-2001. It's taken him a while to get strong footing at South Carolina; and even now, his Gamecocks are not at the level that he established in Gainesville. But there was a time when Steve Spurrier might have been the best coach in college football. The man knew how to coach offense, he knew how to hire good defensive assistants, and he led Florida football to some serious, serious heights ... and without NCAA punishment, no less.
When Spurrier came to Gainesville in 1990 after winning 15 games at Duke (Duke!) in 1988-89 -- they went to the 1989 All-American Bowl, their first bowl in 29 years -- he didn't waste much time. He beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 17-13, in his second game in charge of his alma mater. Later, his No. 15 Gators beat No. 4 Auburn, 48-7; they finished 9-2 and 13th in the country. The 1990 squad was not without flaw -- they did lose at Tennessee, 45-3 -- but despite the postseason ban it was one hell of an opening statement.
From there, it was on. The Gators finished 10-2 and seventh in the country in 1991, and over the next decade they would never finish worse than 12th. From 1993-01, Florida went 94-19-1. They won five conference titles in six years (1991, 1993-96), and more than almost any team before them, they proved you could win games by lining your guys up wide, then passing, passing and passing some more. (Of course, he also always seemed to have a spectacular running back or two as well. He didn't exactly struggle in recruiting.)
They cleared hurdles with regularity. Spurrier won his first SEC title in 1991, then won his first Sugar Bowl (and pulled in his first Top 5 finish) in 1993. In 1995, they made the de facto national title game (the Fiesta Bowl versus Nebraska), and in 1996, they won their first national title. They would finish in the Top 5 three more times in the next five years before Spurrier famously got the itch to coach in the NFL following the 2001 season.
Jeremy Foley has been Florida's athletic director since 1992; he was either an Assistant or Associate Athletic Director for 12 years prior to his promotion as well. In building what is truly an incredible athletic department, he has made very few poor decisions when it comes to hiring coaches. He indeed made one, however, when he brought in New Orleans defensive coordinator Ron Zook to replace Spurrier in 2002. Zook had been Spurrier's associate head coach in 1995, but he had spent six straight seasons in the NFL. Still, he's a charismatic guy and, clearly, a great interview, and he snagged the job. He continued to recruit quite well, but for three straight years he had basically the same season: Florida finished 8-5 and 24th in the Coaches' Poll in 2002, 8-5 and 25th in 2003 and 7-4 (when he was fired) and 25th in 2004. That is certainly decent, but it wasn't good enough to follow a legend. Zook was quickly dumped and replaced for the closest thing to a sure thing: Urban Meyer. And it was quickly like the Zook era had never happened.
You probably know quite a bit about Meyer's tenure, eh? He went 9-3 in his first season in Gainesville, then unleashed hell. Florida went 13-1 in 2006, 2008 and 2009, won two national titles, introduced the world to the legend of Tim Tebow, and, in his first five seasons, never finished worse than 13th in the country. His Gators needed some luck to sneak into the 2006 BCS Championship (they were fourth in the polls heading into championship weekend, but USC lost a shocker to UCLA, and the Gators sneaked by idle Michigan into the No. 2 spot), but once they were in the title game, they left no doubt about whether they belonged. They endlessly harassed Ohio State quarterback (and Heisman winner) Troy Smith and bolted to a 41-14 win.
After rebuilding the defense in 2007 (while Tebow was winning the Heisman himself), they suffered an early upset loss to Ole Miss in 2008, then coasted to another national title. They beat No. 4 LSU, 51-21. They beat No. 8 Georgia, 49-10. They beat No. 24 South Carolina, 56-6. They beat No. 23 Florida State, 45-15. They thumped No. 1 Alabama, 31-20, in the SEC championship, then they beat No. 2 Oklahoma, 24-14, for the national title.
Cracks began to show when offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left following 2008, however. Florida still went undefeated in the 2009 regular season, but they looked less explosive in doing so and got smoked, 32-13, in the SEC title game. Following Tebow's departure, his offense began to look even more listless. Florida finished just 8-5 in 2010, and a tired Meyer retired to
spend time with his family take a few months off, work a season with ESPN, then take the Ohio State job. He was replaced by Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who hired Charlie Weis to run what ended up being an even worse offense. He was bailed out by Kansas' hire of Weis, and he heads into 2012 with a new offensive coordinator: former Boise State coordinator Brent Pease.
Retired Numbers And Statues
Florida has taken an odd approach with retired numbers. At one point, both Spurrier's No. 11 and Scot Brantley's No. 55 were retired, but when Spurrier took over as head coach, he put both of them back into the rotation. It's just as well, though: by this point, Florida has had spectacular players at nearly every position, and it would be hard to know where to draw the line. You've got quarterbacks like Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tebow. You've got running backs like Fred Taylor, Emmitt Smith and Errict Rhett. You've got receivers like Cris Collinsworth, Carlos Alvarez, and Ike HIlliard. Youv'e got linemen like Jack Younblood and Trace Armstrong, linebackers like Wilber Marshall, Jevon Kearse and the aforementioned Scot Brantley, and an endless supply of defensive backs (Lito Sheppard, Bruce Bennett, etc.).
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is part of a growing and gorgeous Florida athletic complex, across the street from some frat houses. Fifty years ago, it held 46,000 people; now, it holds 88,548. It was called Florida Field from 1930-89 but then added the name of alum, benefactor, politician and citrus grower Ben Hill Griffin, Jr.
Florida On YouTube
Ten semi-random highlights via the YouTubes:
View their statistical profile here. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 expects the Gators to bounce back pretty strong after this recent mini-collapse. It gives the Gators a one percent chance of going 12-0 in 2012, a five percent chance of going at least 11-1, and a 49-percent chance of going at least 9-3.
Five Interesting Returnees On Offense
RB Mike Gillislee (5'11, 198, Sr.) (328 rushing yards, 5.9 per carry, +5.9 Adj. POE)
LT Xavier Nixon (6'6, 292, Sr.) (former high-four-star recruit, 23 career starts)
WR Andre Debose (5'11, 191, Jr.) (432 yards, 16.0 per target, 59% catch rate)
QB Jeffcoby Driskett (Jacoby Brissett & Jeff Driskel) (354 passing yards, 47% completion rate, 2 TD, 6 INT)
QB/RB/WR/TE Trey Burton (6'3, 229, Jr.) (149 receiving yards, 125 rushing yards)
Five Interesting Returnees On Defense
MLB Jonathan Bostic (6'1, 243, Sr.) (77.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PBU)
S Matt Elam (5'10, 206, Jr.) (64.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FF)
WLB Jelani Jenkins (6'0, 230, Jr.) (61.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 6 PBU)
DE Sharrif Floyd (6'3, 295, Jr.) (32.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
BUCK Lerentee McCray (6'2, 246, Sr.) (18.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 PBU)
Missouri's All-Time Series Versus Florida
Undefeated again, baby. We should have joined the SEC a long time ago.
- January 1, 1966 (Sugar Bowl): Missouri 20, Florida 18
Throughout history, how often do you figure a team has stopped a soon-to-be Heisman Trophy quarterback on three two-point conversions? I'm willing to bet it isn't a very common occurrence. It takes a team with an infinitely supply of testicular fortitude to pull that off--luckily, Mizzou's defense proved it had just that.
In 1965, Missouri had been on both ends of comeback attempts. Against UCLA, the Tigers had fallen behind 14-0 in the fourth quarter before putting together the most unlikely of comebacks--two special teams touchdowns did the deed--and they had managed a tie. Against Nebraska, it was the other way around. Mizzou took a quick 14-0 lead before NU came back and, aided by an official who wasn't fond of curse words, did just just enough to beat Mizzou, 16-14. By this point in the season, the Tigers were probably pretty unimpressed with double-digit leads or deficits.
Good thing, too, because lesser teams might have panicked in the face of a mad comeback attempt by a stud quarterback.
Heading into the Sugar Bowl, you'd think the attention had to be on the offenses, right? Gary Lane, Big 8 leading rusher Charley Brown, and do-everything Johnny Roland versus Steve Spurrier (11 months prior to winning the Heisman) and All-American WR Charley Casey. But for both teams, defense took top billing. Missouri's defense featured Roland and a stout secondary, and had only given up more than 14 points twice in ten games. Meanwhile, the Florida defense entered the Sugar Bowl ranked #7 in the country, highlighted by All-Americans of their own in DE Lynn Matthews and DB Bruce Bennett.
Sure enough, it was a defensive show early. Neither team scored in the opening frame, as both teams were feeling each other out (a boxing reference!). But in the second quarter, Mizzou's rushing attack got rolling. The Tigers put together a 59-yard drive that was highlighted by Charley Brown's lovely diving catch of a Gary Lane pass. Brown then jetted in from 10 yards out to give Mizzou a 7-0 lead.
The teams then traded punts, only Florida muffed a return, and Mizzou was handed good field position. They took advantage immediately with a halfback option pass from Johnny Roland to Earl Denny ... and it was 14-0. Florida finally got rolling on offense after that--the future Ol' Ball Coach drove the Gators to the Mizzou 10, but a penalty dropped them back to the 25, and then Mizzou DE Dan Schuppan recovered a Spurrier fumble to stop the drive. Missouri snuck in a field goal and took a commanding 17-0 lead into halftime.
The story of the first half was by far Mizzou's defense. Nevermind Roland and the secondary--this time it was linemen like Schuppan and Tom Lynn raising a ruckus and continuously harassing Spurrier. After the game, Devine said about Spurrier, "We have never hit a quarterback so often or so hard, but he hung in there to do a great job."
To shut out the potent Gators for a half was quite impressive, but to do it for another half would be impossible, right?
Well, maybe not. The D picked up where they left off in the second hafl, shutting UF out in the third quarter and, more importantly, tacking on another field goal to increase the lead to 20-0. As you remember, Mizzou went into a shell against Nebraska and failed to score after two easy TD drive in the first quarter--it was key for Mizzou to remain aggressive against the dangerous Gators, and though it was only a field goal, it made a world of difference.
Heading into the final quarter, Mizzou had the dagger in their hands. They faced a 3rd-and-1 from the Florida 15 and a chance to end any hope of a Florida comeback, but Carl Reese was stuffed for no gain. Devine then had a choice to make--go for a third field goal and technically keep Florida within three possessions, or go for the first down, score a touchdown, and end the game. Devine, who showed against UCLA that he had no problem going for the win when he went for two down 14-6 in the fourth quarter (they missed and needed a two-point conversion on their next touchdown just to tie), went for the jugular. And missed. Reese was stuffed again on fourth down, and Florida was given life.
Six passes later (all completions), it was 20-6. Spurrier took the Gators 85 yards in the blink of an eye, but for some curious reason, Florida coach Ray Graves decided the Gators should go for two. The attempt failed, and Florida was down a full 14 points. That did nothing to discourage the Gators, however. On the second play after the Florida kickoff, Earl Denny fumbled and Florida recovered on the Mizzou 11. Two plays later, Spurrier plunged in from a yard out, and it was 20-12. Ken Boston, however, broken up Spurrier's second two-point attempt, and the lead remained at eight points. If they had just attempted PATs, they'd have been down just six.
After a Mizzou punt, Spurrier had to lead Florida 81 yards for a chance to tie and did exactly that. And once again, it didn't take long. A spectacular juggling catch by Casey (who finished with 5 catches, 108 yards, and the career SEC receiving record) did the deed, and the score stood at 20-18 with four minutes left. But this time it was Jim Whitaker stepping up to the plate for the Tigers--he broke up a pass intended for Barry Brown (who had 9 catches for 88 yards on the day), and Mizzou continued to hold on for dear life.
Florida got the ball back one last time, but Mizzou's defense finally responded, quashing the rally, closing out a dramatic Sugar Bowl win, and allowing the 12,000+ Missouri fans in attendance to exhale for the first time in about an hour.