SI Vault
 
4 FLORIDA
Kelli Anderson
August 31, 1998
Lying in the weeds? In the unfamiliar position of not defending the SEC title, the Gators make a fresh run at the championship behind their vaunted defense
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 31, 1998

4 Florida

Lying in the weeds? In the unfamiliar position of not defending the SEC title, the Gators make a fresh run at the championship behind their vaunted defense

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Fast Facts

1997 record: 10-2 (6-2, tied for 2nd in SEC East)
Final ranking: No. 4 AP, No. 6 coaches' poll

1997 Averages

Scoring

Rushing Yards

Passing Yards

Total Yards

OFFENSE

37.2

145.0

276.3

421.3

DEFENSE

18.1

70.7

219.7

290.5

All right, so Florida didn't win the SEC title last year, for the first time in five years. That hardly rates as futility in fifth-year senior tailback Terry Jackson's book. Jackson—student body vice president, team captain and all-around deserving guy—has played with teammates in about 20 videogame leagues over the past four years, competing in everything from Madden football to NBA Live to Super Mario Karts, but he has yet to win the big one. "I'm the only one who hasn't won a championship," says Jackson, who is so passionate about the leagues that he draws up membership contracts stipulating when games must be played. "I'll go undefeated during the regular season and then choke in the playoffs. But I have a feeling this is going to be my year."

This might be Jackson's year to grab some long overdue glory on the real gridiron as well. The third member of his family to wear number 22 for the Gators (his father, Willie Sr., a receiver from 1970 through '72, was Florida's first black player; his older brother, Willie Jr., became the school's all-time leader in touchdown receptions before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in '94), the 6-foot, 218-pound Jackson has lined up at tailback, fullback, linebacker, strong safety and punt returner. He played each position with such skill that coach Steve Spurrier has called him "the best all-around player in college football." Jackson has 216 carries for 1,207 yards (a 5.6-yard average) and 14 touchdowns in his Gators career, but though his talent remains impressive, his achievements have been curtailed by injury or obscured by bigger names.

This year there are no big names on offense, only big questions, especially at quarterback. Junior Doug Johnson threw for 21 touchdowns in '97 but is recovering from a surgically repaired shoulder and only began throwing footballs again this month. He won't be ready for the season opener against The Citadel on Sept. 5. That puts the ball, at least for now, in the hands of talented but raw sophomore Jesse Palmer, who was yanked quickly in his only start as a freshman, against Auburn. Whoever ends up taking the snaps will be throwing to the leanest group of receivers in Spurrier's seven years in Gainesville. "This year," says Spurrier, "I think we'll be more Fun, Run 'n' Gun."

So why can't anyone wipe that grin off Spurrier's face? For one thing, Palmer had a terrific spring game (three touchdowns, no interceptions), and his smarts and work habits have prompted his hard-to-please coach to routinely invoke the name of 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. Moreover, although Johnson's erratic play frequently sent Spurrier into his trademark visor-tossing tizzy last fall, he has demonstrated that when healthy he can put up big numbers—and win—in the Florida coach's madcap system. Indeed, Johnson showed his mettle last year in wins over Tennessee, in which he threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns, and Florida State, in which he and the now departed Noah Brindise combined to throw for 336 yards against one of the nation's most fearsome defenses. As for the concerns about the unit's lack of star power, consider this: From 1991 through '96, not a single Florida offensive player was taken in the first round of the NFL draft (only two were taken in the first three rounds), yet the Gators won four SEC titles and had the conference's highest scoring offense during that period.

Spurrier didn't have half the defense then that he has now. Last year the Gators allowed just 70.7 rushing yards a game, second in the nation, and set a school record with 50 sacks. Since Bob Stoops arrived as defensive coordinator two years ago, Florida has held opponents to three-and-out 39.9% of the time, and the Gators should be even more brutally efficient this year. The front seven might be the nation's best. Six of the projected first-teamers started the 1997 Sugar Bowl, and the one who didn't, 6'5", 254-pound junior linebacker Jevon Kearse, has been making up for it ever since: Despite starting just four games last year, Kearse led the team with 6½ sacks and 29½ "big plays," Stoops's accounting of forced fumbles, quarterback hurries and the like.

One thing Florida won't have is the swagger that comes from topping off four straight SEC titles with a national championship. Returning vets remember with stinging clarity the ambushes that Georgia and LSU pulled on them last year. "Those games felt like losing the '96 Fiesta Bowl," says senior defensive tackle Ed Chester, recalling the 62-24 thrashing at the hands of Nebraska in the national title game. "We know now we can't take anybody in this league for granted. I'm just glad I get one more chance at those guys."

For Chester, Jackson and even the sublimely self-assured Spurrier, overconfidence will not be a problem. For the rest of the SEC, that is the problem.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

1