While '96 has a slight edge at cornerback, Nelson is easily the best defensive player on the field for either team—and the personification of a game-changer at safety.
TONY JOINER, REGGIE LEWIS, REGGIE NELSON, RYAN SMITH
After the off-season dismissal of would-be starter Avery Atkins, Smith, a junior summer transfer from Utah, filled a critical need and wound up leading the Gators this season with eight picks. At safety, big-hitter Nelson patrolled the middle of the field like few other players in Florida history. The junior safety picked off six passes of his own—two against Tennessee and one against Alabama, which he returned for a touchdown. The Gators had allowed only 10 touchdown passes all season entering the national championship game.
Jacquez Green was as dangerous a punt returner as he was a receiver. In the 65?0 rout of Kentucky, Green set a Florida record with two punt returns for touchdowns—within a span of three minutes. Punter Robby Stevenson played a key role in the Sugar Bowl win, controlling field position by twice pinning Florida State inside its five-yard line and averaging 48.1 yards per punt. The '96 team, however, was plagued by field goal kicking woes. Bart Edmiston made only nine of his 17 attempts. But Edmiston was a point-after specialist. Against Georgia Southern, the redshirt senior nailed seven in a row, surpassing the Florida record for most consecutive PATs made with 85. He still holds the career record for consecutive PATs made(114), which he earned against Auburn on Oct. 19.
As in '96, this year's kicking game was a problem. Entering the national championship, Chris Hetland was a dismal 4 for 13 on field goal attempts before redeeming himself with two field goals against Ohio State. But kicking aside, the special teams unit dominated. Florida saved its national championship dreams against South Carolina by blocking three kicks—two by the 6' 6", 255-pound redshirt junior Jarvis Moss, including what could have been the game-winning field goal as time expired. In all, the Gators blocked a school-record eight kicks. As for the return game, freshman Brandon James was a weapon. Penalties negated his first two punt returns for touchdowns; he finally got one to count in the rout of Western Carolina. The special teams unit has also stifled the return: Opponents averaged 3.2 yards per punt return and 18 yards per kick return. Up a touchdown against LSU, freshman wide receiver Riley Cooper forced a fumble on the second-half kickoff return, which led to a safety and stretched the Gators' lead to nine points. Florida's offense took advantage of the momentum shift, scoring another touchdown on the subsequent drive.
Meyer has preached the importance of big plays on special teams since his arrival, and it shows. No way the '06 Gators would have sniffed Glendale without them.
Not many believed the '06 Gators would challenge for the national championship in Meyer's second season—and even fewer predicted that they would knock off No. 1 Ohio State. While their defense was first-rate, the '06ers wouldn't have had have enough depth at cornerback to have handled the all-out passing barrage from Wuerffel and the '96ers (nor the offensive firepower to keep up). But a blowout? Spurrier could never run up the score on one of his own.
'96 FLORIDA 31, '06 FLORIDA 21