You dread bringing it up. You know he must have heard about it seven billion times, and you know he can't enjoy talking about the most devastating loss in school history. But you can't really discuss the Gators' 1996 season without talking about how the '95 season ended. "So, er, Lawrence, about the Fiesta Bowl...."
"I think I learned a lot from that game," safety Lawrence Wright says of Florida's 62-24 loss to Nebraska. "I've never been a part of a game like that, where we played so poorly as a whole team."
No Gator had ever been a part of a game like that. Florida was 12-0 going into the game; if the Gators had won, they would have been national champions for the first time. "I think about it often, what we could have done better, differently in that game," says Wright. "It makes me hungry and keeps the team focused on the task at hand."
Make no mistake: The task at hand is to win the national title—another SEC crown (the fifth in six years) would not be enough. And considering that the Gators' Fun 'n' Gun offense averaged an SEC-record 534.4 yards per game last year while their multiple 40 defense allowed Nebraska to roll up 629 yards, how do you suppose Florida plans to accomplish that task?
Last season's defensive coordinator, Bob Pruett, left to become the coach at Marshall. The new man in Gainesville, Bob Stoops, fresh from overseeing Kansas State's vaunted defense, has installed a 4-3 scheme that is, according to Wright, "more aggressive." Led by Wright, the Gators' secondary will be among the best in the country. Wright and another senior, cornerback Anthone Lott, were All-SEC picks last season.
On offense Florida may be even better than last season—which is saying a lot in light of the Gators' SEC-record 44.5-points-per-game scoring average in '95. Terry Jackson, Fred Taylor and Elijah Williams all return and will again rotate at tailback once Taylor returns from a four-game suspension. And senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel, whose 178.4 passing efficiency rating last fall was the best in NCAA history, has already proved adept at directing the Florida attack.
A favorite of Florida fans, Wuerffel inspired cheers from Gainesvillians during the off-season, too—simply by running down University Avenue. Of course, he was carrying the Olympic torch at the time. Says the modest Wuerffel in explaining his torch-bearing technique, "Just tried to keep the feet going." When it came time to hand off the torch, Wuerffel's target was wideout Chris Doering. It was the last time Wuerffel would pass anything to Doering, his leading receiver last year and one of only three offensive starters from the '95 team not returning this fall.
Even without Doering, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Gators have many talented receivers, with juniors Ike Hilliard (1,008 yards receiving in '95) and Reidel Anthony (15.3 yards per catch) leading the ranks. Hilliard, for one, thinks this year's team will be just as good as last year's, which, despite the Fiesta Bowl loss, finished No. 2 in the nation. "I know people have lost a lot of respect for us, but we're not worried about that," says Hilliard. "We're going to put up the same kinds of numbers we did last season."
But numbers only got the Gators to No. 2. To become national champs, they will have to show that they have learned from the Fiesta Bowl loss. "Maybe getting clobbered by Nebraska helped us come down to earth," says coach Steve Spurrier. "We didn't have an off-season of patting each other on the back."
This off-season other people may be doing that for them.