Steve Spurrier will always have a prominent place in Southeastern Conference lore, and his Fun n’ Gun offense at Florida will always be revered as one of the toughest aerial attacks in SEC history.
The Spurrier era in Gainesville reached its apex during the 1996 season when the Gators won the SEC, earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl and then did something no other Florida team had previously done — won a national championship.
To top it off, Florida’s 52-20 win came against top-ranked rival Florida State in what back then was designated as the Bowl Alliance’s championship game.
Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel threw three touchdown passes to Ike Hilliard that night as the Gators easily handled the same Seminoles team that had edged them 24-21 in a regular-season game in late November.
The Gators were only ranked third going into the game, but they got to play No. 1 FSU because second-ranked Arizona State, the Pac-10 champion, was obligated to play in the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils lost that game to Ohio State the day before, so the Florida-FSU winner knew it would likely earn the AP title.
Could it get any better for Gator fans? Not in the slightest. And that’s why H&A picked that game as Florida’s best bowl win in its history. Next we present our list of best bowl wins in history for the rest of the SEC East:
Sugar Bowl, January 1, 1981
Bulldogs 17, Notre Dame 10
The Bulldogs defeated Notre Dame inside the Superdome to claim their only AP national championship in school history. Georgia was only 16th in the preseason AP poll that season but proceeded to go 12-0 under coach Vince Dooley. Georgia was ranked No. 1 and the Fighting Irish seventh going into the game. The MVP of the game was freshman running back Herschel Walker, who scored two touchdowns en route to Georgia gaining a 17-3 halftime advantage. Walker, a future Heisman Trophy winner, became the first true freshman named to the AP All-America team.
Sugar Bowl, January 1, 1951
Wildcats 13, Oklahoma 7
Coach “Bear” Bryant’s Cats capped off the best season in school history and an SEC championship by beating the No. 1-ranked Sooners in arguably the biggest win — bowl or no bowl — in school history. Oklahoma was 10-0, winners of the Big Seven and ranked first in both polls going into the game. Oklahoma averaged 34.5 points per game that season, but Kentucky had a staunch defense that featured three defensive tackles who bottled up Sooners quarterback Claude Arnold and helped end a 31-game Sooners winning streak dating back to 1948. The Cats’ two-way tackle Bob Gain would be the fifth over NFL Draft pick by the Green Bay Packers. Kentucky finished 11-1 with its lone loss being the final game of the season, 7-0, at Tennessee.
Orange Bowl, January 2, 1961
Tigers 21, Navy 14
After losing the first seven bowl games in school history, the Tigers finally won their first postseason battle in front of President-elect John F. Kennedy in Miami. It was a battle of Top-10 teams, making it even more special. Missouri’s defense was the hero, shutting down Navy’s Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Bellino, and making the Midshipmen pass the ball. Mizzou quarterback Ronnie Taylor only attempted six passes as the Tigers ran for 223 yards. Missouri finished 11-0 officially that season but was ranked only fifth. Perhaps that’s because on the field it lost its regular season finale 23-7 to Kansas but famously got the win when it was ruled the Jayhawks used an ineligible player in the game.
Outback Bowl, January 1, 2001
Gamecocks 24, Ohio State 7
We’re back to that Spurrier fellow again. After he left Florida, he finished his collegiate coaching career in Columbia, South Carolina, where his first bowl there — over the blue-blood Ohio State Buckeyes — was only the second bowl win in Carolina history. It also set quite a tone, considering South Carolina also beat Ohio State in the 2002 Outback Bowl, 31-28. But the ’01 Outback Bowl was a dominant second-half Gamecock performance, following a mere 3-0 halftime lead. By the time Phil Petty hit Ryan Brewer for a 28-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks had put this one away. Ohio State coach John Cooper was fired after this one.
Fiesta Bowl, January 4, 1999
Volunteers 23, Florida State 16
Who would have thought that the year after Peyton Manning leaves Knoxville the Vols would win a national championship? That’s what happened after quarterback Tee Martin led the Vols to a win over the Seminoles in a 1-vs.-2 showdown in the desert. It was also the first BCS championship game, as the powers that be changed the system yet again. Martin threw two touchdown passes, including a 79-yarder to Peerless Price in the fourth quarter. ’Noles quarterback Chris Weinke was injured in the last regular-season game and didn’t play. It was the final game for legendary Vol broadcasters John Ward and Bill Anderson.
Gator Bowl, December 31, 1955
Commodores 25, Auburn 13
In their first bowl appearance ever, the Commodores upset the 10th-ranked Tigers in Jacksonville, Florida, making school history. Vanderbilt wouldn’t win another bowl game for another 53 years (the 2008 Music City Bowl). Future Alabama governor Fob James caught a 38-yard touchdown pass for Auburn. However, Co-MVP Donn Orr was Vandy’s quarterback, and he set the tone early with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Joe Stephenson. Orr also scored two rushing touchdowns. H&A
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Cover photo: Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl – January 1, 1981 | Courtesy Georgia Athletics