In the cool darkness of last Saturday evening, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel jogged from the floor of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, his head humbly bowed and his face expressionless. Only when he neared the tunnel at the south end of the field did Wuerffel lift his chin, gently shake his right fist once, twice, three times and let a soft smile crease his face as if he were savoring some small, private success. "He remembers that game in Arizona last January," said Wuerffel's father, Jon, who stood nearby in a thicket of Gators fans. Behind Wuerffel, teammate Johnny Rutledge, a sophomore linebacker, rumbled through the tunnel like a storm, raising his orange helmet overhead and then lowering it as he yelled, almost in disbelief, "They really thought they would win!"
Each team had lugged its own heavy baggage onto the wet grass for Saturday's game in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608. Florida was facing its first meaningful opponent since the night of Jan. 2, when Nebraska undressed the Gators 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl. "You try to have amnesia about a game like that," strong safety Lawrence Wright said as his team prepared for the Volunteers. "But it just breathes inside you and won't go away." Tennessee's demons were closer at hand: The Vols' most recent loss had been a 62-37 thrashing by Florida last September. Looking back on that game last week, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer called it "embarrassing to me, embarrassing to our players." On Saturday, one team's healing commenced and the other's suffering was prolonged.
In the first 20 minutes of play Wuerffel threw four touchdown passes to four receivers, the Volunteers committed three crushing turnovers, and the Gators took a 35-0 lead that stuck a sharp knife in a year's worth of anticipation and left those within the hulking stadium in virtual silence. It mattered not in the least that Vols quarterback Peyton Manning, in desperation, would throw for 492 yards and four touchdowns, or that Tennessee would reduce the final score to 35-29. The shock of the Gators' early onslaught would never dissipate. Nor would the sense that Florida, 3-0 and ranked No. 1, is alive again and back in pursuit of the national championship.
Nine days before Saturday's game Florida coach Steve Spurrier sat behind the desk in his office in Gainesville, fidgeting and squirming, a vision of nervous energy in search of an outlet. In his six years as Florida's coach Spurrier has built parallel reputations for genius and arrogance as his Gators have won four SEC titles and 82% of their games. Yet his team's epic collapse in Arizona hovers over his success, a fact that annoys him. "I'm not irritated because we lost that game, I'm irritated because we didn't compete in it. But if we go 12-0 again, and win the Southeastern Conference again, I will be a happy Gator," said Spurrier, a loyal alumnus who really talks like this. "I don't have to win the national championship to be a happy Gator."
Florida has climbed a very tall ladder nearly to the top; only one rung remains. Spurrier won't acknowledge how significant that final step is to his program, but his players will, and much that the Gators have done in the months since the Fiesta Bowl has been motivated by that defeat. "It doesn't do any of us any good to hide from that game and refuse to think about it, like it didn't happen," says middle linebacker James Bates. "I do think about that game, about how we have to be better, stronger, more physical."
Says Wuerffel, "Adversity can run some people into the ground. I hope we've learned from that game."
To enhance that possibility Spurrier opened preseason practice by gathering the team for a viewing of the Nebraska loss. "It was the last game of the season, and usually you never see film of the last game," says Wright. "In this case, it was necessary."
And when Spurrier decided last winter to change his defensive coordinator for the seventh time in his 10 seasons as a college head coach, he hired 36-year-old Bob Stoops from Kansas State, where Stoops had built the country's top-ranked defense, one of the few that could consistently hold its own against Nebraska's mighty offense. "He wanted Florida to become a physical, aggressive, hard-hitting team," says Stoops, a former defensive back at Iowa and the son of an Ohio high school football coach. "That's what I teach."
On Saturday, Stoops's troops not only intercepted Manning four times (matching Manning's total from all of 1995), but also held Tennessee to nine yards on the ground. The Florida defense made as many large plays as the Gator offense did.
No Florida player suffered more in the Fiesta Bowl and its aftermath than Wuerffel. After a brilliant regular season in which he had thrown 35 touchdown passes, the 6'2", 209-pound Wuerffel went to Tempe and was sacked seven times, once for a safety, and tossed three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Although little of what transpired that night was solely Wuerffel's fault, much of the blame landed at his feet. "But Danny is the kind of kid who bounces back," said his father.