College football is built on rivalries; here in the Football Film Room, we’ve spent the last few weeks talking about one of its greatest: Notre Dame vs. USC - a yearly showdown that saw two proud programs cross the country to face one another each year in the sports “greatest intersectional rivalry”.
But this week, we instead focus on a rivalry between two programs a mere 150 miles apart - and one incredible year when the short stretch of highway between Tallahassee and Gainesville became the most hotly contested battlefield in football.
We’re going back to 1994, folks, and the two unforgettable games played between the Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles.
Welcome to the Sunshine Showdown’s mist unforgettable year.
Where our story begins…
By 1994, the battles between Florida and Florida State represented something more than just a rivalry - they represented the barometer by which excellence in college football would be measured. But that certainly wasn’t the way it had always been.
When the match-up began back in 1958, there was concern among the Florida Gators contingent that a yearly match-up with Florida State might give the more recently established football program legitimacy that would encroach on the Gators’ statewide influence. After all, Florida’s football program had dated all the way back to 1911, and were far more established than the Seminoles program, founded just over a decade prior in 1947, and which had, at least up until that point, played only small schools in the surrounding area.
Predictably, the series’ early games went almost exclusively to the Gators, who were 15-2-1 against the Seminoles between 1958 and 1975. But in the mid-1970s, a coach by the name of Bobby Bowden arrived in Tallahassee, and the rivalry would never be the same.
Bowden’s Seminoles lost to the Gators in his first season in 1976, but then rattled off a miraculous four straight victories between 1977 and 1980 - showing just how much FSU had closed the gap on its in-state rivals.
Through the 1980s, the two teams traded winning streaks, with Florida dominating under new coach Charley Pell from 1981 - 1986, before Bowden returned the favor for the remainder of the decade following Pell’s exit amidst an NCAA investigation in 1985. But beginning in 1990, it would be the hiring of Steve Spurrier as head coach that would take the rivalry into its Golden Age.
Spurrier, a former Heisman-winning quarterback at Florida, would re-establish the Gators as a national power, with his teams finishing in the top-15 every year of the 1990s. It was a feat matched only by his foes to the west, where Bowden had his Seminoles finish in the top five every year throughout the decade. Suddenly, the yearly rivalry had gone from a test of in-state supremacy, to a game with national title implications every time these two took the field.
Still, 1994 was something else entirely.
When they met in Tallahassee in 1994, both teams were 9-1, top 10 in the nation - and with the potential to face Nebraska in the national championship just a few weeks later in the Orange Bowl.
On the Florida sideline, Steve Spurrier was fielding what was, up until that point, far and away his most talented team in Gainesville. Under center, he had two dynamic QBs in Terry Dean and Danny Wuerffel (though Wuerffel would end up taking over full time by the end of the 1994 season), but more than that - they had one of the speediest receiving corps in the country behind Jack Jackson, Ike Hilliard, and Reidel Anthony. Add to that a defense that returned seven of the top eight players on the defensive front and the entire secondary - led by standout corner Michael Gilmore (5 interceptions on the year) and defensive tackle Ellis Johnson (16.3 sacks and 26.8 tackles for a loss) - and it was easy to see why the Gators entered 1994 as the number one team in the land.
They averaged nearly 500 yards and over 40 points per game (the latter landing them second in the country), were fourth in total offense, fourth in passing offense, and though they were 64th in rushing offense by year’s end, that was more due to how proficient their air attack was behind the sophomore Wuerffel. They also were starting two freshmen at tailback, one of whom was future NFL star Fred Taylor - so when they wanted to run the ball, they were more than capable at it.
While a loss to Auburn derailed preseason hopes of Spurrier’s first undefeated season with the Gators - there was still one “first” fans hoped he could get: a win against the Seminoles in Tallahassee.
Standing in his way, though, was a team that had just claimed the 1993 national championship, and who had a resume - and stat sheet - almost equal to that of the Gators. Still, there were question marks, most notably how the team would replace Heisman winning QB Charlie Ward from the year before - to say nothing of losing three out of his top four receiving targets. To make matters worse, the jury was still out on his replacement, QB Danny Kanell, who had won the job over Thad Busby in fall practice.
But what wasn’t in question was sophomore Warrick Dunn - whose breakout freshman season playing behind RB Sean Jackson presented the Noles with perhaps their only surefire weapon coming into the year. Dunn would go on to rush for 1,000+ yards in the 1994 season, crossing that threshold in the first meeting between these two teams.
Defensively, however, the Seminoles were in good hands all the way through - beginning with the two “Derricks” - LB Derrick Brooks and DL Derrick Alexander, and Clifton Abraham in the secondary, all of whom led one of the country’s best defenses that would end the year ranked top ten in virtually every defensive category, and fourth in total defense overall.
They faced a setback in an early loss to a Miami Hurricanes team that would eventually go on to play Nebraska in the national championship, but like the Gators, they would roll through the rest of their schedule. By the time Florida came to Doak Campbell Stadium in Week 14, both were firing on all cylinders as the Sunshine Showdown approached...
Act 1: The Choke at Doak
For a game billed as the rival showdown of 1994, the early going of Florida and Florida State’s first match-up seemed to be setting the stage for one of the most lopsided victories in the series’ history.
After a shaky start under center, the game really began with Wuerffel hitting Aubrey Hill for a 68 yard touchdown to put the Gators up 7-3. Meanwhile, Kanell and the Noles couldn’t seem to catch a break offensively to match them. Kanell frequently overthrew his receivers, and even amidst a promising drive midway through the first quarter, a fumble by Rock Preston gave the ball right back to Florida, and it would awhile after that before Florida State’s scoring unit was able to get anything going.
Florida, meanwhile, only seemed to gain momentum - and the second quarter just seemed to go from bad to worse for the Seminoles. The Gators would add another touchdown to Jack Jackson, continued to pressure Kanell into a three-and-out (which they then turned into three more points), then forced the junior QB to fumble in the pocket - and though a Wuerffel interception momentarily saved this one from getting even uglier, Kanell promptly threw an interception of his own to Florida the ball back with just :28 seconds left at midfield.
And the way the Gators had it going - that was more than enough time.
It took Wuerffel just three plays to go 50 yards for a touchdown - another one through the air to Jack Jackson - and all of the sudden it was 24-3 in favor of the Gators.
Fans at Doak were shellshocked. There were chants for Thad Busby to replace Kanell - who, to be fair, had passed for just 72 yards with two turnovers through two quarters of play. A 9-1 record, over 2,000 yards passing - it didn’t seem to matter much by then; this kind of a loss to the Gators simply would not be tolerated.
“My only mindset in the second half was not to come back and win but to make it respectable,” Kanell would later say in an ESPN oral history of the game. Oh, if only he knew.
It started slow for the Seminoles. A long drive that ended with a missed field goal seemed, at least on the surface, to be a wasted opportunity - made even worse by the 80 yard touchdown drive Florida immediately put together to get themselves even further ahead 31-3.
But as the third quarter wound down, something strange happened: Florida eased up. They began to run the ball, stalled on drives, and the aggressiveness that had characterized their first three quarters was replaced by, at least to the outside eye, the Gators warming up the bus back to Gainesville.
Of course, they were up by 28 points. Florida State’s offense had sputtered all game long. Even when Florida State converted a fourth down in the red zone and was able to finally get into the endzone to bring it to 31-10… most FSU fans still were looking for the exits.
Heck, even after the FSU defense seemed to tighten up and got the ball back for the offense to get in again to cut the lead to 14… most saw it only as the last gasp of a team saving themselves from a blowout.
But then Derrick Alexander led the rush on Wuerffel and got the ball back for the Seminoles… and when their next offensive drive featured seven straight completions from Kanell - who finished it off with a quick run to the right - all of the sudden it was a one score game. FSU had, against all odds, made this a ballgame again, and they still had the momentum.
Florida needed to shift back into gear, but now it was their offense that seemed to stall. Wuerffel threw an interception to James Colzie, whose diving catch gave FSU the ball, down only a touchdown.
Five plays later, that deficit was erased, as Preston redeemed himself after that early-game fumble, to get into the endzone for the game-tying score.
Just 30 minutes removed from raining boos down on the field, Doak Campbell Stadium erupted. As the clock wound down to zeroes, the realization of a tie began to set in… though, as Wuerffel would say in that same oral history: “If there's ever a tie that felt like a loss, it's that one.”
Intermission: What happened in the middle...
A week later, Florida would beat Alabama for the SEC Championship - earning themselves a highly-anticipated rematch with the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl, aptly dubbed “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter”.
And while it wouldn’t serve as the National Championship game for the 1994 season, it was arguably the country’s most anticipated game heading into the bowl season.
It didn’t disappoint…
Act 2: Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter
These two teams waited a little over a month to get their hands on each other again - and it showed almost immediately.
One of the primary features of Florida State’s comeback in Tallahassee was their ability to get pressure on Wuerffel and rattle the Gators’ high-flying timing - and boy oh boy, did defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews double down on that strategy for this one. They came early and often, hurrying the young sophomore while containing the big plays that had hurt them in the first match-up. Still, the Gators showed plenty of the flash they were famous for - highlighted by a double reverse pass from Reidal Anthony to Jackson that had the Superdome on its feet.
And as FSU took the field, fans were more curious about the play of Kanell, who - though the hero of the Seminole’s miraculous fourth quarter a month prior - played about as bad as a QB can play for much of the game.
Kanell, however, was calm, cool, and collected from the first possession. He would finish 23-40 for 252 yards and no turnovers - but this game, it was Warrick Dunn who would have the most electrifying moment through the air.
In the night’s first game-breaking moment, Dunn - a former high school quarterback - was pitched the ball to the right hand side, then tossed the ball a clean 73 yards to O’Mar Ellison, who scampered into the endzone for the longest touchdown pass in Sugar Bowl history.
Now, it felt as though the roles were reversed, as Wuerffel and the Gators struggled to get anything going against the pressure from the Noles. They would fail to convert a fourth and short, giving the ball back to FSU - who, led by a confidence-laden Danny Kanell, got themselves back into the endzone off of two absolutely perfect passes from Kanell - the latter of which found Kez McCorvey tiptoeing on the right side of the endzone for a touchdown. 17-3, FSU.
But if the second quarter of their last meeting had taught the Florida State faithful anything, it was that the Gators could score, and score quickly. They went right back down the field for an 82-yard score on an Ike Hilliard catch and run from Wuerffel, and while FSU would add three more before halftime, a 20-10 deficit felt like it could have been much worse for the Gators.
The third quarter had become a defensive slugfest - featuring just three points from FSU on a Dan Mowrey kick. And with Wuerffel getting the ball back with just over eight minutes left to play - you did have to wonder: could they return the favor with an epic fourth quarter comeback of their own over the Noles?
The comeback would, indeed, be on… but it wouldn’t be without its hiccups.
First Spurrier tried another trick play that fell incomplete - made even more frustrating by the fact that the Gator who got the lateral and dropped back to pass could have run it for a clear ten yards! Then, officials mistook a Wuerffel audible for a timeout call… when one of his receivers had lined up wide open on the outside.
But Wuerffel would hit Jackson over the middle… then a near-interception was reversed after the Seminoles were called for pass interference… and then, in the game’s most controversial moment - Wuerffel reached across the goal line only to have the ball knocked away, fumbling the ball back to-
… but wait. What’s this?
The officials said that Wuerffel had broken the plane and had gotten into the endzone, which FSU players and fans were - understandably - outraged by. Replays on the telecast confirmed that Wuerffel had, indeed, crossed the goal line, but that didn’t stop tempers from flaring as the fourth quarter hit its crescendo.
From there, things only got weirder. When Florida State got the ball back with just under four minutes to play, the conventional wisdom was that they would simply run the ball.
But Bowden, perhaps with the memory of Spurrier’s conservatism in their last match-up fresh in his mind - kept going to the air. Incompletions stopped the clock, Dick Vermeil - on the call with Brent Musburger - was beside himself, pointing out that “these guys defy the normal principles” when they play each other.
Florida State lucked out briefly on a pass interference call, but were eventually forced to punt - giving Florida one last chance…
But there wouldn’t be a second comeback in this yearly series. Wuerffel, under heat all day long, fell victim to it once more - getting sacked on the first play to make it 2nd and 18, and when the pressure came again, he threw an ill-advised pass into the waiting arms of Derrick Brooks, so good for the Noles all year long.
FSU got the ball back, and this time they didn’t mess around - getting right into the victory formation and, after brief confusion over the game clock, watching it run down to zero. Ballgame.
The legacy of this one month stretch
Of course, those amongst you who remember will likely point out that this wasn’t the only time these teams met twice in the same season. They would, in fact, do it two years later in 1996, when the now Heisman-winning QB Danny Wuerffel led Florida to a Sugar Bowl victory over the Seminoles - just one month after losing another thriller in Tallahassee. What’s more, going into their first match-up the two teams were ranked #1 and #2, respectively - the only time such a thing has happened in the history of the rivalry. Not only that, but their Sugar Bowl match-up - now a part of the Bowl Alliance - would make this the National Championship game, rather than just a rematch of their game in Tallahassee.
So it’s fair to ask: why did I pick 1994 instead?
Well, for starters - the second Sugar Bowl game simply wasn’t at all competitive. FSU’s exceptional defense (still under the leadership of Mickey Andrews), proved too much for the Gators in the first round, but outside of Warrick Dunn their their scoring unit simply couldn’t keep up with the ‘Noles in this rivalry’s second chapter of the 1996-1997 season - they lost handily 52-20.
What’s more, 1996 doesn’t happen without these two games - and I don’t just mean that literally.
Coming into the 1994 season, Florida almost certainly had the more talented team - but Florida State had taken six of the last seven match-ups between this team, and Steve Spurrier’s job still depended on whether or not he could prove he could beat Florida State.
And watching those 1996 match-ups again, you can see just how much many of the players who lived through this 1994 stretch had grown… and how much they clearly remembered. The game plan that was perfected in 1994 against Wuerffel was the same pressure-laden approach that they would see again on the game’s biggest stage in 1996. But Wuerffel was able to beat Andrews’ approach by using their own aggressiveness against them - completing quick screens and draw plays that forced the Seminoles to sit back a bit. It was something the eventual All-American simply wasn’t able to do as a sophomore a few years prior. And speaking of aggressiveness - that 52-20 final score makes a bit more sense when you consider the fatal flaw of the Choke at Doak: Spurrier took his foot off the gas.
Put simply: watching anything that came after this between these two teams in the 90s just doesn’t get the full story without the Choke at Doak, without the Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter, and without an understanding of just how big this rivalry was once we neared the end of the millennium.
But, of course, while this was certainly the Golden Age of the Sunshine Showdown - it would never quite be this way again. All but one of their games throughout the 1990s were top-10 showdowns, and half came when both teams were ranked in the top five. In the two decades since, there have been only two top-ten match-ups between the two squads - and while each has claimed a national title in the 21st century, their paths have never run alongside one another’s quite the way they did when Bowden and Spurrier roamed the sidelines.
What do you remember from these epic Sunshine Showdowns? Something I missed? Any other games you’d like to see me cover? Send it all my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.