A Florida Gators’ fan is asked a question–“best college football team ever?” What’s their answer? The 1996 Gators? The 2006 squad? What about the 2008 team? Sadly, it’s not a Florida team. Sadder, the answer is an easy one that brings on instant nausea. They begrudgingly respond with the only logical answer in their mind.
“The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers.”
In 1995, I was a junior in high school. I had already decided my college destination. Even if I wouldn’t apply for a few months, I had known I would attend the University of Florida for years. For many of those years, I’ll admit that I knew very little of the school itself. I didn’t have a family full of alums or even neighbors that openly touted their affiliation with UF. What I did have was an unhealthy obsession with a football team. And in 1995, that obsession reached new, glorious heights.
The Gators would beat Tennessee and that Peyton Manning guy by 25 points. They would travel to LSU and Auburn on consecutive Saturdays and come away with victories against two ranked opponents. Georgia? Ha! 52-17. No. 6 FSU fell to the mighty Gators 35-24. Arkansas stood no chance in the SEC Championship Game and Florida came away with a 34-3 win, securing their spot in the national title game. That meant the 12-0 (yes, an undefeated season prior to the bowl game) Gators were headed to Tempe, Arizona to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Fiesta Bowl for all the marbles, the whole shebang, all that and a bag of chips, and whatever else you want to use to describe the national championship.
And Florida had stars, plenty of them, but one above all others. Danny Wuerffel was front and center, and rightfully so. His dream of a national championship would be fulfilled just one year later, but it felt within reach following the 1995 season. There he was, with Steve Spurrier behind him, directing one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Nebraska was favored by three, but many believed Wuerffel and the Gators would be too much for the Cornhuskers’ defense. This, despite the fact that Nebraska had faced three top-10 teams during the regular season and had held them to an average of 16.3 points (admittedly skewed by allowing No. 10 Kansas only three points, but impressive nonetheless).
Wuerffel’s counterpart on Nebraska’s offense was Tommie Frazier (a name ever ingrained in the minds of Florida fans, and not in a good way). Frazier threw the ball half as much as Wuerffel did, wasn’t as accurate, and didn’t account for nearly as many touchdowns through the air. Frazier excelled, though, at managing one of the deadliest offenses we’ve ever seen in college football. The ‘Huskers option offense produced six players that would carry that ball at least 50 times. Only one averaged under 6.2 yards per carry. Two others carried the ball 22 times or more and both averaged over 8.4 yards per carry. By comparison, Nebraska didn’t throw the ball much, but they didn’t need to.
Heading into the game, the Gators were scoring 44.5 points per game, an impressive number. They had never scored less than 28 and had gone over 50 four times (and scored 49 once). I liked it. We all liked it. Very much. Then there was Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were averaging 52.4 points per game, had never scored less than 35, and had scored over 50 five times (with two games in which they put up 49). From a pure points-production standpoint, if the Gators were good, the ‘Huskers were better. There are many other factors to take into consideration when looking at these numbers. For instance, Florida’s strength of schedule ranked in at No. 16 that season. But Nebraska’s wasn’t much further down the list at No. 24.
The game began with hope. Florida scored first and, after allowing Nebraska to get on the board, scored again. The Gators were ahead 10-6 at the end of the first quarter and the outlook was bright. While the ‘Huskers had reached the end zone, so had the Gators and many were still wondering if the Nebraska defense could stop Florida. Then would come the second quarter.
Getting punched in the gut hurts. You momentarily lose your breath and struggle to find it as the pain in your stomach builds. This wasn’t that. This was much worse. This was November 26, 1994 (look it up if you must) all over again with the exception that that game ended in a tie at least (we can salvage that much, can’t we?). This would not end that way. Not even close. This was having Ryu come to life and hadouken you into a new zip code, to the tune of 29-0.
I can’t imagine what was said in the Gators’ locker room during halftime, nor do I want to. I heard my share of angry halftime locker room speeches during high school. I’m sure they didn’t register on the same level as this one. Florida was down 35-10 with a half to play. It wasn’t looking good. Even if the Gators could kick start their offense, how would they stop Nebraska? Well, they wouldn’t. While the fireworks wouldn’t continue as rapidly, the grand finale hadn’t come either. It would, with less than one minute remaining in the third quarter.
Florida had scored to cut (ha) the lead to 42-18. Nebraska got the ball back and on second down from their own 25 unleashed one of the most memorable plays in the history of college football (which is also possibly the most painful for Gators’ fans despite it happening when the game was already out of reach). Actually, Frazier unleashed it. There was nothing spectacular about what the other ‘Huskers on the field at the time did. It wasn’t a case of a perfect play or an amazing block that sprung Frazier into the opening. In reality, five Gators had a more than great opportunity to bring Frazier down (your count may be slightly different depending on how you define a true missed tackle). At the time, it felt like closer to 50.
I just rewatched the play for the first time in many, many years. It doesn’t hurt any less. It was the game’s most dangerous offensive weapon taking over on the game’s most important stage. If the game was out of reach before the play, the mercy rule should have been put into effect after Frazier’s run. Frazier rushed for 604 yards during the 1995 regular season. He rushed for 199 against the Gators.
When it all came to an end, Florida had fallen to Nebraska 62-24. What could have been the biggest moment in the program’s history became one of the worst. Attempting to put a cap on what had been a great season, the Gators ran into the best team in the history of college football. Some will say 1971 Oklahoma and others will mention 1972 USC. For this fan and many others out there, there is no debate. Even without suiting up in orange and blue and being on that field, we felt the shear power that Nebraska team had. It was painfully amazing and at the same time amazingly painful.
Exactly one year later, the Gators would accomplish what they hoped they would have on January 2, 1996. There would be three national titles in all following the destruction in Tempe. We like to think that loss propelled the Gators into the 1996 season with a chip on their shoulders. That 38-point championship game loss became a 32-point championship game win. As much as we’d love to have that game back, the result may not have been different. Whatever fuel it gave the Gators to power them to the 1996 championship is all we can take from it. That has been good enough for us for many years and will have to be for many more.