The SEC has won between 28 and 40 college football national championships — depending on your source and school colors. Saturday Down South is ranking the conference’s 10 greatest national champions, acknowledging history while bowing to progress.

The countdown continues …

No. 4 1996 Florida

Record: 12-1

PPG: 47.0

Allowed: 17.0

SRS: 23.6. SRS combines margin of victory and strength of schedule, where 0 is average. The higher the number, the more dominant the team. Only one Gators team in history had a better SRS — more on them later in our Top 10 countdown.

Statistical oddity: Steve Spurrier’s 1996 “Fun ‘N’ Gun” attack scored the most points per game in SEC history. Not only that, the Gators somehow exceeded their average by dropping 52 on Florida State in their Sugar Bowl rematch.

Their case for greatness: It wasn’t like nobody saw this coming.

In 1995, Danny Wuerrfel threw 35 touchdown passes and finished third in the Heisman voting as the Gators averaged 42.9 points per game. They lost one game — their last game — and the 62-24 beatdown the Gators suffered against No. 1 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl set the stage for everything that followed in 1996.

The longest memory

Few people in sports history have a longer memory than Steve Spurrier.

In 1989, Spurrier posed with his Duke Blue Devils players in front of the scoreboard after a 41-0 blowout at rival UNC. Spurrier said he did it to celebrate Duke’s ACC title.

Those who knew him best said he was still furious — nine years after the fact — that the Tar Heels, up big against Duke, gave a late carry to Kelvin Bryant so he could reach 1,000 yards in 1980.

Spurrier was Duke’s offensive coordinator at the time. But he never forgot.

“I took my losing butt back to Durham, and we didn’t cry about it,” Spurrier told The State many years later. “I figured maybe someday I’ll be on that sideline and can tack on some yards against those guys.”

Those feelings never went away. When Spurrier returned to Chapel Hill as South Carolina’s coach in 2007, he delivered a win and a parting shot.

“I didn’t want to lose up here,” Spurrier told reporters after the game. “I’m happy for the Dukies and the South Carolina people. I felt like I was coaching for both of them today.”

You can imagine, then, how well a 38-point loss in the 1995 championship game sat with him. Spurrier, after all, in 1995 ran a flea flicker to get to 50 points at Georgia … because the Bulldogs ended his championship dreams as a Heisman Trophy QB at Florida in 1966.

Those weren’t the only times, of course, that his long memory served him well.

Florida opened the 1996 season ranked No. 4 and raced to a 10-0 start. Its lone close call in a series of 50-point performances was a 35-29 narrow escape against Peyton Manning at No. 2 Tennessee. The Gators turned four Manning interceptions into a 35-0 lead, and then held on.

“We didn’t want you accusing us of running up the score,” Spurrier joked afterward.

That victory vaulted the Gators to No. 1 in the rankings and set the stage for the second defining moment on their journey to their first national championship.

Lessons learned

Spurrier arrived in Gainesville in 1990. He lost his first game against Florida State’s iconic Bobby Bowden. He lost the Jan. 2, 1995 Sugar Bowl to Bowden’s Seminoles, too.

He was just 2-4-1 against FSU when the teams met late in the 1996 season, in Tallahassee.

FSU, ranked No. 2, was led defensively by a pair of bookend defensive ends who became top NFL draft picks: Peter Boulware, the fourth overall pick in 1997, and Andre Wadsworth, the No. 3 pick n 1998.

Their mission was simple: Pound Wuerffel.

Oh, how they did. The sacked the eventual Heisman Trophy winner six times and hit him on 26 other occasions to pull out a 24-21 victory. Spurrier complained that many of the punishing hits came after the whistle — to which Bowden smiled and said his boys will make sure they don’t do that next time, dadgummit.

He had no idea, however, that the next time would come five weeks later in the Jan. 2, 1997 Sugar Bowl.

Their words added intrigue to an already white-hot rivalry.

Ever the innovator, Spurrier left nothing to chance. He talked with officials before the game, repeating the message to watch for late hits, but then he took matters into his own hands. He moved Wuerfful in the shotgun, out of harm’s way, a strategy he experimented with in the SEC Championship Game win over Alabama.

That masterful piece of coaching led to a 52-20 beating in one of the biggest blowouts in rivalry history.

Wuerffel threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, giving Spurrier and Florida their first national championship.

“Now do you see why we didn’t want to play them again,” Bowden told reporters afterward.

Only three teams on our Top 10 countdown would have.


No. 10: 1961 Alabama: Greatest defense gives Bear first title

No. 9: 1980 Georgia: Herschel Walker and Run, Lindsay, Run

No. 8: A battle of Alabama caps golden era

No. 7: Super Cam and 2010 Auburn

No. 6: 2011 brings Saban sighting

No. 5: 2012 Alabama repeats, beats 2011