Florida State’s defense planted so many hits on Florida’s Danny Wuerffel during their 1996 regular-season game that the senior quarterback’s brother couldn’t bear to watch.
“I was taking such a beating that my little brother Ben was crying in the stands,” Wuerffel wrote in his book, “Tales from the Gator Swamp.”
FSU sacked Wuerffel six times in No. 1 Florida’s 24-21 loss to the No. 2 Seminoles on Nov. 30, 1996.
The following week, Gators coach Steve Spurrier shifted Florida’s offense into the shotgun formation after confirming with Wuerffel and center Wyley Ritch that they could manage the switch.
“I’d been pretty stupid not to put the shotgun offense in (previously),” Spurrier told me this week. “It seemed we’d go up and down the field without using the shotgun, but against a fierce pass rush, the shotgun is an advantage, no question about it.”
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Armed with the new formation, Florida scorched Alabama’s heralded defense, 45-30, in the SEC Championship. That propelled UF into a rematch against FSU in the Sugar Bowl. The Gators caught a few breaks in other games involving highly ranked teams, meaning they could capture the national title by beating the Seminoles.
Two Florida offensive tackles who were injured for the first meeting played in the rematch, and Wuerffel threw three touchdown passes from the shotgun in Florida’s 52-20 Sugar Bowl triumph that ranks among the most memorable reversals in a college football rematch.
Spurrier expects another rematch reversal when No. 1 Alabama (13-1) faces No. 3 Georgia (13-1) in the national championship on Monday (7 p.m. CT, ESPN) in Indianapolis.
The Crimson Tide defeated Georgia 41-24 to win the SEC Championship on Dec. 4, but Spurrier has been bullish on the Bulldogs’ title chances throughout the season, and the first result didn’t dissuade his thinking.
“They’re due for the football gods to maybe smile on them this time,” Spurrier said.
Nick Saban’s history in rematches
A rematch played in the national championship is uncommon, but not unique.
Nick Saban won his third national championship overall – and his second at Alabama – when the Crimson Tide beat LSU 21-0 in the BCS national championship to cap the 2011 season after losing to LSU 9-6 during the regular season.
“I don’t know that there’s anything that I can really take from that experience that’s going to have any effect or impact on this one,” Saban said.
Nevertheless, Saban has fared well in rematch games. Before that national championship reversal, he ruined Tennessee’s national championship hopes while LSU’s coach in 2001.
The Vols beat LSU 26-18 at home in September that season before losing 31-20 to Saban’s Tigers in the SEC Championship, while ranked No. 2.
“We’ve strived for a long time to gain the kind of respect for our team that beating a team like this gives you,” Saban, who was in his second season at LSU, said after that game.
Now, it’s Georgia striving for respect.
Alabama has won seven national championships since Georgia’s 1980 team supplied its last national title.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is 0-4 against Saban, his former boss. The most stinging of those four losses: Georgia led Alabama 13-0 at halftime of the national championship four years ago before losing 26-23 in overtime.
How Steve Spurrier expects Georgia will adjust its defense
Georgia had a free swing at Alabama in Atlanta. Land the punch, and it could have knocked the Tide out of the playoff. But much like Alabama’s 2011 regular-season loss to LSU, whiffing on the first swing doesn’t have to prove fatal.
Despite pressuring Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on 16 pass attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, in the first meeting, Georgia never sacked him. And Alabama’s speedy wide receivers, led by Jameson Williams, made the Bulldogs’ defensive backs look slow.
Young threw for 421 yards and three touchdowns.
“I believe Georgia is going to do something different with their defense. After they played the first time, they’re going to say, ‘We can’t sit in these zones, and we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback somehow,’” said Spurrier, who coached in same-season rematch games five times as the coach at Florida or South Carolina, winning the second installment twice.
While coaches can make adjustments ahead of rematches, like Spurrier did with his swap to the shotgun, he said winning a sequel isn’t about rewriting strategy.
So, what type of team has the advantage in a rematch?
“The best team,” Spurrier said with a chuckle. “The best team has the advantage.”
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.