1996: A National Championship and a Heisman
Behind arguably the finest offensive unit in SEC history, a solid defense that registered a school record six touchdowns, and some good fortune late in the year, the Florida Gators capped off the greatest season in school history with a rousing 52-20 victory over number one ranked Florida State in the Nokia Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on January 2, 1997 to claim the consensus 1996 national championship.
Florida became one of just three teams in NCAA history to be named the national champions in the same season in which it faced a schedule that the NCAA deemed the nation's toughest. Penn State (1984 champion), Colorado (1990 co-champion) and Florida (1996 champion) were the only teams in NCAA history to accomplish that feat.
Behind record-setting quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who joined Steve Spurrier as a UF Heisman Trophy recipient, the Gator offense averaged 46.6 points per game, a mark that ranked as the best in SEC history and led the nation. Florida, posting a 9-0 mark in SEC play, outscored its conference foes by an average of 46.8 - 15.8 (a 31 point average victory margin in SEC games). Its 76 touchdowns were the most in SEC history and in addition to leading the nation in scoring (46.6 points per game), it also led the country in average yards per play (7.1) and TD passes (42).
After posting a 12-1 record in 1995, with the one setback coming in the 1995 national title game against Nebraska, the Gators opened the new season with high expectations once again. After posting a 35-29 win (in which UF jumped to a 35-0 lead in the first 20 minutes) at Tennessee in the third week of the season, in a much-hyped contest between Wuerffel and UT's Peyton Manning, the Gators moved into the number one spot in the polls. They held that spot until the last regular season game of the year when they suffered a 24-21 setback to number-two ranked Florida State in Tallahassee and fell to a fourth place ranking in the national polls. Fate, however, would bring these two state rivals back together six weeks later in New Orleans.
A week after the loss to FSU, Texas upset number three ranked Nebraska in the Big XII Championship Game. That night the Gators defeated Alabama, 45-30, in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game behind a six-touchdown performance by Wuerffel, which clinched the Heisman Trophy that he received the following week in New York. Entering the bowl season ranked number three, the Gators then saw Ohio State knock off second ranked Arizona State at the Rose Bowl in a dramatic last-second victory on New Year's Day. That result now meant that the Jan. 2nd battle in New Orleans with top-ranked FSU was for the 1996 national championship.
The Gators put together a tremendous all-around performance in posting the victory over the Seminoles, which led to a consensus national championship. The 32-point margin of victory over FSU was the largest versus a number one ranked team in bowl history.