Heroes of the Series explores stars of past. These players or coaches either excelled for Florida or the Gators’ opponent of the week – in this case Auburn. They may have been the star of the game or provided a spark that shifted momentum. In the past, there has been a hero for both the Gators and their opponent. This week you only get the Florida hero and rightfully so. Auburn’s Wes Byrum has already been mentioned and he will NOT be associated with the word “hero.”
In 1996, when Florida won the national championship, the Gators scored 611 points. Over the following three seasons, Florida would score 430, 370 and 403 while only making it to the SEC Championship Game once – a 34-7 loss to Alabama in 1999. When the 2000 season came along, Steve Spurrier had found a quarterback again and brought back some of the scoring. The Gators’ output of 468 points wasn’t a complete turnaround, but Florida did score 34 or more in all but one of their first 10 games, including 35 in a loss to Mississippi State. The defense was a different story though; the Gators allowed 276 total points – the most they had given up in a season since 1992.
There were a few shining moments for the Gators though. In back-to-back weeks against LSU and Auburn, Florida allowed a total of only 16 points to the dual Tigers. The defense would take a step back in the four games after that, allowing at least 20 points in every contest. Heading into the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, the Gators were confident because of what they had done to the Tigers earlier that season, but Florida would need the ball to bounce their way to gain an advantage. And bounce it did.
Rex Grossman passed for four touchdowns during the game, Reche Caldwell caught two of those scores, and Earnest Graham had a career-high 169 rushing yards. Any of those three could have been picked as this week’s hero and they would all be deserving, but, in a twist of sorts, the honor goes to a defender.
Florida would jump out to an early 21-0 lead thanks to three turnovers and two of those three would come courtesy of linebacker Mike Nattiel. On Auburn’s first play of the game, the Tigers fumbled and Nattiel was there to pick up the ball. Not long after, Grossman would hit Caldwell to give the Gators a 7-0 lead.
After a Lito Sheppard interception led to another Grossman-to-Caldwell score, Florida was up 14-0. Auburn would begin to move the ball after that and got all the way down to the Gators’ three yard line before yet another turnover. Nattiel recovered his second fumble at the three and the Florida offense followed it up with a 97-yard touchdown drive.
Nattiel would end the game with eight tackles and those two fumble recoveries that led to Florida scores. It just goes to show you how important turnovers are. If Auburn had been able to score from the three, they could have made it 14-7. Instead, Nattiel recovered the fumble and a few minutes later it was 21-0 Gators. You can play a great game without causing a single turnover, but they sure help. This season’s Florida squad needs that help.