A Breakthrough SEC Crown For The 1991 Florida Gators

The 1991 Florida Gators were a team and program looking for their first-ever SEC crown—at least one that would be officially recognized. They had won the league in 1984 and 1990, but each time probation was used as a reason to declare them ineligible for the official championship trophy. There was no probation in 1991 and no stopping Steve Spurrier’s Gators.

Spurrier’s offenses in Florida were known as “Fun-N-Gun” for the way they spread the field. Shane Matthews was the trigger man. The quarterback completed 60 percent of his passes at 8.7 yards-per-attempt and he threw 28 touchdown passes. Matthews also threw 18 interceptions, but while that was obviously a high number, it was not as unthinkable as it would be in today’s game. And it wasn’t enough to stop him from being named SEC MVP and making third-team All-American.

Willie Jackson was Matthews’ favorite target, catching 51 passes for 725 yards. Harrison Houston caught 33 more balls. Errict Rhett was a verstaile running back, rushing for over 1,100 yards and catching 40 passes. Rhett was an All-Conference performer and had good offensive lineman in Heshman Ismail and Cal Dixon to run behind.

Together, they were the fourth-most prolific offense in the country and the defense wasn’t far behind. Brad Culpepper was one of the best defensive tackles in the nation and fellow DT Tony McCoy made All-SEC. So did linebacker Tim Paulk and defensive back Will White.

Even in a college football world where one in-state rival (Florida State) was the preseason #1 and the other in-state rival (Miami) was the program that defined all of college football and would add another national title this season, Spurrier still had the Florida program clearly on the map. They were ranked #5 to start the season.

A blowout of San Jose State kicked off the season and then Alabama came to town for a prime-time battle. 1991 was the last year before the SEC split into divisions, so the Gators and Tide were competing directly for the same championship. Alabama was ranked #16 coming in and would only lose once this season.

That “once” came on this night in Gainesville. Florida forced five turnovers. Rhett ran for 170 yards. Matthews went 15/27 for 251 yards and three touchdowns. The Gators only led 6-0 at the half, but TD passes to Tre Everett and Jackson in the third quarter blew it open and the final was 35-zip.

There was no time to rest, because a road trip to face a good Syracuse team that would win ten games was up next. Florida had a letdown and lost 38-21. They faced their third ranked opponent in as many weeks when Mississippi State came to Gainesville. The Gators won 29-7, and even though they hadn’t escaped September unscathed, they had swept their SEC games.

A road shutout of mediocre LSU set up yet another big showdown, this time with Tennessee. The Vols were ranked #4 and the winner of this October 12 game would emerge in control of the conference race.

Once again, the Florida defense forced turnovers in a big game. They recovered two fumbles that led to scores. They intercepted Vol quarterback Andy Kelly three times. They held Tennessee to 49 rushin gyards. Matthews threw a couple touchdown passes, Rhett ran for two more and the result was another decisive win, this time by a 35-18 count.

A non-conference win over Northern Illinois (then an extremely low-level independent) gave Florida a chance to catch their breath. They went on the road and blasted a mediocre Auburn team 31-10. It put the Gators in position to do what none of their forebears had done—clinch a recognized SEC title and Sugar Bowl berth.

For a Florida fan, there’s no sweeter way to consume Sugar than to do it by beating Georgia in the annual “World’s Largest Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs were a good team, coming into the game ranked #23 and winning nine games by the time it was all over. But they were no match for Spurrier’s Gators.

Florida scored on the opening drive. Georgia answered with a field goal and the rest of the game was one long, overdue party for the Gator program. They led 28-3 by the half. Matthews threw four touchdowns and his ninth 300-yard passing game set a new conference record. Rhett ran for 124 yards. With the 45-13 win, Florida at long last was champions of the Southeastern Conference.

They closed out the conference schedule with a 35-26 win over Kentucky and after a week off, prepared to face Florida State on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Seminoles were devastated after losing a crushing game to Miami that ended any national title hopes in Tallahassee. And this Florida team was not one that could be faced with less than peak intensity.

The game was a defensive struggle and the Gators trailed 9-7 in the third quarter. Matthews threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Houston and Florida had a 14-9 win. They were all the way up to #3 in the polls as their Sugar Bowl date with Notre Dame loomed on New Year’s Night.

Officially, there was still hope for a national championship. Miami and Washington were the top two teams, each atop one poll and playing in the Orange and Rose Bowls respectively. If they lost, Florida was the natural candidate to move up.

But there were several problems with that scenario. If Washington lost, it would be to fourth-ranked Michigan and the Wolverines would likely jump the Gators in that situation. Notre Dame’s bid to the Sugar Bowl had been controversial, as the Irish had lost three games and were chosen over better on-field alternatives. That would in turn hurt Florida if they needed to impress pollsters.

The second problem was that Washington was seen as highly unlikely to lose to Michigan. The notion that Miami would lose to Nebraska on their homefield would have been laughed out of any respectable college football conversation in 1991. By the time Florida took the field on New Year’s Night, they already knew Washington had handled its business. Miami did so as well in the game that was running concurrently with Florida-Notre Dame.

But the biggest problem was that all these scenarios presupposed a Florida victory. And that’s something that would not happen. The Gators missed early opportunities to put the Irish away and in the second half it came back to bite them. Notre Dame’s Jerome Bettis ran wild down the stretch and Florida’s dream season ended with a 39-28 loss.

The loss was a tough ending, but it was still a historic year for the Florida football program. And it set the stage for even bigger victories. Spurrier won four straight conference titles from 1993 to 1996, including the national championship in ‘96. He kept Florida as one of the country’s elite programs until his departure following the 2001 season. The program later won two more national championships under Urban Meyer in 2006 and 2008. If anyone doubted that Florida was coming, the 1991 season eliminated the doubts.