Two things happened before the start of the 2005 season that had Florida fans eager and a little nervous about the future of Gator football. Legendary former Florida head coach Steve Spurrier returned to the college ranks to take charge of one of the Gators’ SEC East rivals and Urban Meyer came from Utah to take over the Florida program.
Spurrier’s move was a decision that lost him some fans in Gator nation. When the Ol’ Ball Coach left Florida for the NFL, a number of fans lost their respect for the man, saying he left behind his alma mater for money. That’s partially true. Spurrier also left for opportunity. In a sport where ego runs rampant, many coaches have the desire to see what they can do at the next level. Spurrier left for a bigger paycheck, but also left to take his turn as a NFL head coach. Many wrote him off at that moment. I never did.
Even when he came back to college to coach a program – South Carolina – that resided not only in the same conference, but the same division as the Gators, I never lost my love for Spurrier. My formative football educational years were during the time he led Florida to new levels. To suddenly begin to despise the man because he took another job we all may not have wanted him to take was out of the question for me. But there was the realization that beginning in 2005, I would have to see him on the opposite sideline once a year. A shuddering thought, but one I could deal with.
At the same time, the Gators had moved past the Ron Zook experiment and brought in a young man (Meyer was four years younger when he took over at Florida than when Spurrier did the same) with a brief, but glowing resume. Coming off a 12-0 season with the Utes, Meyer had improved his record to 39-8 as a head coach. Gator fans, still soured by Zook, weren’t sure what to expect from Meyer, but were more than excited at what the future could bring.
It took Meyer only two years to do what Spurrier needed seven to accomplish – win a National Championship. In another two, Meyer would take home the title again. While those who still revered Spurrier initially thought they could never love another head coach as much, Meyer was quickly becoming the top man in the school’s long football history.
Their first five seasons at Florida were surprisingly similar. From 1990 to 1994, Spurrier was 49-12-1 with four SEC Championship Game appearances, three conference titles, and three major bowl appearances (he went 1-2 in those games). From 2005-2009, Meyer was 57-10 with three SEC Championship Game appearances, two conferences titles, and three major bowl appearances (where he was 3-0). Both coaches had three seasons with 10 or more wins and each had their worst record – an identical 9-4 – in their third year. Meyer benefitted from playing five more games than Spurrier and had a higher win percentage, but overall the success was similar. With one major exception.
Although the Gators were a dominant power for most of the 1990s, they would only win one National Championship under Spurrier. He would play for the title following the 1995 season, but wouldn’t win it until a year later in his seventh season as the Florida head coach. Meyer has already won two titles and finished 13-1 an astonishing three times and won’t enter his seventh season until 2011. To say Meyer has equaled Spurrier success would be an understatement. At this point he has surpassed it.
Looking at their overall tenure as Florida head coaches, similarities remain. Neither coach ever won less than nine games in a season and never lost more than four (although Meyer is walking both tightropes in 2010). Even their overall Gator win percentages get closer if you look at their entire bodies of work – Spurrier at 0.813 and Meyer at 0.829.
Only look at the last five years though and a very different picture is painted. Spurrier knew he wasn’t headed to a power when he agreed to coach South Carolina, but he had hopes to put the Gamecocks in a position to consistently compete in the SEC. That has yet to happen and, although South Carolina has been an improved program under him, they haven’t managed to lose less than five games in a season thus far. While Meyer has directed the Gators to an overall record of 63-13, Spurrier has been 41-31 with the Gamecocks and a meager 1-4 against Florida.
With the two coaches facing each other for a sixth time, there’s a lot more at stake than usual. Both teams sit at 6-3. For South Carolina, an upset over then top-ranked Alabama was the highlight. For Florida, the Gators hit bottom during a three-game losing streak. Thanks to an underwhelming year by SEC East members as a whole, both teams still have a shot at making it to Atlanta and playing in the SEC Championship Game. On Saturday, they will play a de facto SEC East title game.
Despite the meaning of this matchup for both teams, the actual game could go a number of different ways. It may end up being great. Or it could be one to sleep through. There have definitely been both in the Meyer vs. Spurrier series…
Love or hate Spurrier, all Gator fans wanted in 2005 was to beat him. Florida had won 14 straight over South Carolina and, despite the addition of their former coach, the Gators needed that streak to continue.
In Meyer’s first season, he had led the Gators to a 7-2 (5-2) record with a shot at heading to Atlanta – assuming Florida got some help. With the upset loss to the Gamecocks, that door was closed by a man who had won a Heisman Trophy playing for the Gators and coached them to their first, and only, National Championship.
South Carolina played Florida tough from the start and was able to hold on late to win the game 30-22 in front of their home crowd. The Gators had a chance after kicking a field goal to pull within eight with 2:51 remaining. The following onside kick attempt was unsuccessful though. Florida forced the Gamecocks to punt with only a minute left, but was penalized, allowing South Carolina to keep the ball.
Despite an improved South Carolina team entering the matchup, the loss was still a gut-punch for Florida and Gator fans. The orange and blue didn’t lose to the Gamecocks. It was just that simple. To not come away with the victory was as shocking as having to face off against their former star head coach. Although it was Meyer’s first season and Florida had showed signs of life under their new leader, this particular loss would be remembered for the next year until the two teams met on the field again.
I’ve had the fortune of being in The Swamp during two of the greatest home games in Florida football history. The first was during my freshman year in 1997 when the Gators upset top-ranked FSU in what I can only describe as the loudest stadium experience I’ve ever been a part of. The second was in 2006 when Florida beat South Carolina 17-16 in Spurrier’s return to Gainesville.
On that night, Jarvis Moss became a legend at Florida. His blocked extra point was crucial, but Moss went one step further, blocking a Gamecocks’ field goal attempt as time expired to seal the one-point victory. The kicking game was a nightmare for South Carolina as the Gators blocked three total kicks on the night.
An amazing finish and an always lively crowd were the highlights of the Florida win, but some other points stand out about the game. Despite only scoring a combined 33 points, the Gators and Gamecocks totaled 811 yards, 51 first downs, and only turned over the ball once. Numbers like that usually lead to higher-scoring games, but this was a battle that ended with both teams in the teens.
The legendary end to the game was only the beginning for Florida. The win would propel the Gators the rest of the season and help them climb the BCS standings. Florida would not lose again and would go on to win the National Championship. South Carolina would also not lose again and finish the year 8-5. It was a tough one for the Gamecocks with all five losses coming to ranked opponents and four of those five by a touchdown or less.
While the South Carolina defense stood up admirably during the first two Meyer vs. Spurrier showdowns, they couldn’t stop anything the Gators threw at them during the next two.
2007 would end up being the down year for both coaches. It was the low point for Spurrier as South Carolina stumbled to 6-6 and would be Meyer’s worst season as the Florida head coach as the Gators finished 9-4. On the bright side, 2007 would be the season Tim Tebow would stake his claim as one of the greatest to ever play college football and put together a season for the ages as he took home the Heisman Trophy.
He may have won the award due to his performance against the Gamecocks alone. In the 51-31 win, Tebow accounted for 424 yards and seven touchdowns. His five rushing touchdowns set a school record and he broke a tie with Emmitt Smith and Buford Long for the most rushing touchdowns in a season in Florida history. His final touchdown of the night would be #42 for Tebow on the season which would break a tie with Danny Wuerffel for the most touchdowns accounted for in one season in SEC history. For good measure, the sophomore quarterback also set a career-high in the game with 304 passing yards.
The game would bring back painful memories for Spurrier. The Gators were the first team to score 50 or more points against a Spurrier-coached team since Nebraska put up 62 against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Despite being bowl-eligible, South Carolina would lose its next, and final game, and be left out of the postseason.
In the 2008 meeting, Florida would hand Spurrier his worst loss ever as either a player or a coach. The loss to the Cornhuskers for the National Championship may have been more knock-you-to-the-ground-and-kick-you-while-you’re-down, but in terms of margin, this was the worst.
On their way to a second National Championship in three years, the Gators ran over the Gamecocks 56-6. Not only was it Spurrier’s worst loss ever, it was also South Carolina’s worst loss in 13 years (a 63-7 defeat to the Gators coached of course by Spurrier himself in 1995).
Florida turned the game into a numbers-haven of sorts. The Gators rushed for 346 yards, their highest total in 19 years, against a Gamecock defense that was only allowing 101 yards per game on the ground. Florida became the first team to win six-straight SEC games by 28 points or more. With two passing touchdowns, Tebow improved to 15 scores through the air and no interceptions against the Gators’ last four ranked opponents. And at one point in the first quarter, Florida scored three touchdowns on eight plays.
There are many things to remember from the 2008 beat down as a Gators’ fan, but my most fond memory was when a TBG-favorite almost scored. South Carolina tried some trickeration on a kickoff, but a badly thrown lateral resulted in a recovery by Florida long snapper James Smith. Smith appeared to have scored, but was ruled down just short of the goal line.
The Florida offense struggled at times during the 2009 season and despite being the #1 team in the nation had trouble finishing off South Carolina.
The Gators would score on their first three possessions and make it look like another blowout was brewing, but Florida’s offense would cool off and the Gamecocks would begin to inch their way back into it. South Carolina even looked like they might take the lead in the fourth quarter, but Gator defensive end Justin Trattou became an instant hero as he intercepted Stephen Garcia and rumbled 53 yards. A few plays later, Tebow would cross the goal line and put Florida ahead for good.
The win could be credited to the defense that tightened when needed late in the fourth quarter. The Gators would sack Garcia four times late and a Joe Haden interception would seal it for Florida. South Carolina would win its next game, but fall in their bowl. The Gators would go on to finish 13-1 for the third time in four years.
As both teams prepare for the 2010 matchup, they will be thinking of what could have been. An upset of Alabama could have propelled the Gamecocks to a breakout season. A few plays could have seen the Gators beat LSU and Mississippi State. For now though, the teams are identical. 6-3 (4-3) with a shot at Atlanta. Neither will win the National Championship and its unlikely they’ll even finish in the top 10, but this one game could make or break how the season is looked back on in the coming years. Two legendary coaches doing battle for a spot in the SEC Championship Game.