New venue, same result
Florida whips Auburn again in SEC title game
Updated: Sunday December 03, 2000 9:30 AM
ATLANTA (AP) -- Rex Grossman was able to finish what he started.
Florida abandoned its quarterback juggling act in the Southeastern Conference championship game, leaving the ball in the hands of the brash redshirt freshman.
Grossman responded by throwing four touchdown passes Saturday, leading the No. 7 Gators to a 28-6 victory against No. 18 Auburn and their first SEC title since 1996.
"You can stay in there a long time if you play well and do what you're supposed to do," said head coach Steve Spurrier, who had no need to display his notoriously quick trigger finger.
Grossman, who shared playing time most of the season with senior Jesse Palmer, was on the field for all but two plays as Spurrier fulfilled his pledge to give the younger player most of the snaps.
Grossman, selected the most valuable player, was 17-of-26 for 238 yards with one interception as the Gators earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
"Rex is an excellent passer. Hopefully, he will get a lot more knowledgeable," Spurrier said. "If he gets it all down, he has a chance to be pretty good some day."
Florida (10-2) dominated Auburn for the second time in seven weeks. On Oct. 14, Grossman threw a touchdown pass on each of the first five possessions, leading the Gators to a 38-7 rout.
Afterward, he compared Auburn's defense to the Florida scout team, providing plenty of bulletin-board fodder heading into the rematch. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the motivational edge wasn't nearly enough to overcome the Gators' quickness and depth.
"They have more speed than anybody we have played," head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We didn't have the answer."
Earnest Graham gave Florida (10-2) a lethal ground-air attack, rushing for a career-high 169 yards, and the Gators' ball-hungry defense came up with three critical turnovers in the first half.
Spurrier was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players, who lingered on the field for several minutes to celebrating with their fans. Clearly, the Gators were elated to be back on top in the SEC.
"This is the first big game I've ever won here," junior offensive lineman Kenyatta Walker said. "This is why you come to Florida -- to win a championship."
Grossman led Bloomington South High School to Indiana's Class 5A title in 1998. He didn't wait long to pick up his first ring with the Gators.
"It kind of feels like winning the state championship," Grossman said. "Hopefully, it will be the first of four for my class."
No. 18 Auburn (9-3) had a successful year just by winning the SEC West after two straight losing seasons. The Tigers were denied their first conference championship in 11 years but get to play in the Citrus Bowl, their first New Year's Day appearance since 1995.
Quite a change for a program that was in turmoil just two years ago, when coach Terry Bowden resigned midway through a 3-8 debacle.
"We don't see [the Citrus] as a consolation prize," linebacker Alex Lincoln said. "We're proud to be there."
Florida didn't quite match the efficiency of its first victory over Auburn. But the Tigers never seriously threatened, dooming themselves with two fumbles and an interception before halftime.
"You can't turn the ball over against Florida," Tuberville said. "That's our biggest nightmare."
Auburn fumbled on its first possession and Florida capitalized. On third-and-goal from the 10, Grossman threaded a touchdown pass to Reche Caldwell through a crowd of defenders.
Caldwell scored again before the first quarter ended, this time on a spectacular 66-yard catch and run. He delivered a brutal straight-arm to one would-be tackler and outraced the rest of the Auburn defense down the right sideline.
The Gators made it 21-0 when Grossman hooked up with another receiver, Jabar Gaffney, for a 27-yard touchdown pass. The young quarterback delivered a perfectly placed pass over the head of safety Rob Pate, who was running just behind Gaffney but never looked back to pick up the ball.
Auburn finally got on the board when Damon Duval kicked a 44-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. But that wasn't enough to make up for all of the Tigers' mistakes.
With first down at the Florida 22, Auburn squandered a chance to get back in the game when Ben Leard's errant pass was intercepted by Lito Sheppard at the 7.
The Tigers drove deep into Florida territory on their next possession, converting fourth-and-5 at the 29 on Leard's 15-yard pass to Lorenzo Diamond.
On the very next play, Rudi Johnson was hit by Travis Carroll and lost the ball, which rolled all the way to the 3 before Mike Nattiel fell on it for the Gators. It was his second fumble recovery of the game.
Not surprisingly, Florida led the nation by causing 40 turnovers this season.
After Duval kicked another field goal from 21 yards in the third quarter, Grossman sealed the victory with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brian Haugabrook. About the only thing upsetting to the Florida contingent at the Georgia Dome was when the referee mistakenly said, "Timeout, Georgia" instead of the Gators. Georgia was favored to win the SEC East, but fell from contention with a 34-23 loss to Florida on Oct. 28.
Florida shut down Johnson, who came in as the SEC's leading rusher with 1,520 yards. The junior managed just 47 yards on 17 carries, only the second time this season he was held to less than 100 yards.
Leard was 17-of-30 for 158 yards before he was knocked out of the game with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the victim of a sprained right foot.
Jeff Klein finished up at quarterback, but nothing much changed. Sheppard came up with his second interception late in the game.
The game had no impact on the national championship race. Florida was eliminated with a 30-7 loss to No. 3 Florida State two weeks ago.
"Winning our conference championship is all we talk about," Spurrier said. "We'll enjoy this one for a while, then try our best to beat whoever we play in the Sugar Bowl."
The Gators, who won four straight SEC titles from 1993-96, looked primed to start another run. Grossman and Gaffney are redshirt freshmen; Graham, Caldwell and Sheppard are only sophomores.
"We don't have many seniors," Spurrier said. "Most of the guys doing the important part of the ball-playing are young guys. That gives us a chance."