GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Any list of goals for a football team heading into the Southeastern Conference season starts with winning a division title.
Rare are the opportunities -- take a bow, Alabama -- for bigger down-the-road prizes without at least getting to the SEC Championship Game. In the league's run of six straight national championships, 'Bama 2011 is the lone team that failed to make it to the big game in Atlanta and still play in the big BCS game.
Since the SEC turned college football upside in 1992 by introducing the concept of a Division-I league championship game, Florida has played in the affair 10 of the 20 games, by far the most of any conference team.
The third-ranked Gators (7-0, 6-0) have a chance to clinch an 11th appearance by beating rival and 12th-ranked Georgia (7-1, 5-1) Saturday in Jacksonville. A win by UF would mark the earliest calendar date -- Oct. 27 -- any SEC team has clinched a division title.
Given the clear-cut high stakes, "The List" this week looks back and rates UF's previous 10 East Division clinchers.
Here's our 10.
Nov. 21, 1992 (at Nashville, Tenn.)
Florida 41, Vanderbilt 21
This was a four-loss UF team -- one of just two under Coach Steve Spurrier -- and looked dead and buried after back-to-back (and ugly) SEC losses at Mississippi State and Tennessee three games into the season. The Volunteers, though, melted down with a trio of defeats (two by a single point) and gave the Gators midseason life. They rolled, rarely impressively, to seven straight victories, including an upset of No. 7 Georgia, and gained command of its destiny on the final SEC weekend. Shane Matthews threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns and Errict Rhett rushed for 122 yards and a score. "That was a division championship we were playing for, and I think we're gonna find out as the years roll by that any kind of championship is pretty doggone good," Spurrier said after posing with his team below the Dudley Field scoreboard. "From where we came from -- to win the last seven and Tennessee lose a couple one-pointers, it's a good feeling. These guys deserved a little bit of a celebration." Twenty-one years have rolled by and, yes, Spurrier was right. They're all special.
Nov. 9, 1996 (at Nashville, Tenn.)
Florida 28, Vanderbilt 21
The top-ranked Gators needed a rambling, gambling fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak from Danny Wuerffel with 1:15 from Vandy's 44 to stave off what would have been an upset along the lines of Buster Douglas or even Harry Truman. Wuerffel threw four TD passes to take a 28-6 lead with just under three minutes to go in the third quarter, but the Commodores, who came in 1-7, scored 18 straight points to throw a monumental scare into the nation's No. 1 team, who had beaten its last five opponents -- all from the SEC -- by average of 44.8 points. "Sometimes we can't always win 50-something to 10," said Spurrier, whose team gave Vandy an assist with 17 penalties for 147 yards and two huge second-half turnovers. "It doesn't go perfectly every day, but we got out of here with a victory somehow and we feel pretty good about it." That UF team went on to win the program's first national title.
Nov. 4, 2006 (at Nashville, Tenn.)
Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19
Chris Leak ran for two touchdown and passed for another while the Gators blocked two punts to beat the Commodores, who made it close again a year after taking UF to overtime (behind Jay Cutler). The clinch was significant because it marked Florida's return to the SEC title game for the first time in six years, the program's longest drought (even to date). The Gators, meanwhile and very quietly, kept in contention for a spot in the BCS title game. "Are we playing all the time like a championship team? No," Coach Urban Meyer said. "Championship teams take a big swing at you in the third, fourth quarter and knock you down. We're not doing that." They did -- boy, did they ever -- once they got to the SEC Championship Game.
Oct. 31, 2009 (at Jacksonville)
Florida 41, Georgia 17
The Bulldogs had pictures of Meyer calling his infamous two timeouts in the final minute of the '08 game -- a 49-10 blowout -- plastered all over their locker room the week of this game. [Note: Meyer, remember, was making Georgia pay for Coach Mark Richt calling for an intentional celebration penalty in the '07 game to fire up his team, so clearly there was some juice in the series] Anyway, the Dawgs vowed revenge, storming out in black pants and helmets, but the beatdown by the No. 1 Gators (528 yards on offense, four turnovers by the defense) was substantial. "New helmets and black pants ain't going to make you win the game," UF linebacker Ryan Stamper said. The Gators officially clinched the East crown until Tennessee beat South Carolina 33-13 later that night.
Nov. 11, 1995 (at Columbia, S.C.)
Florida 62, South Carolina 7
To say Spurrier didn't like USC coach Brad Scott would be like saying the universe is somewhat vast. Scott was Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at Florida State and was a game-day and signing-day thorn in the Gators' side for years. ESPN tabbed this game for its Saturday night audience and Florida, unbeaten and ranked second in the nation, wasted no time ruining the atmosphere at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gators had 426 yards of offense and a 42-7 lead at halftime, with Wuerffel accounting for 319 passing and five TDs. Said Spurrier afterward: "Hopefully, this performance will give us some confidence." Seriously, he said that.
Nov. 11, 2000
Florida 41, South Carolina 21 (at Gainesville, Fla.)
One year after going 0-11, USC coach Lou Holtz had his program playing for the SEC East on the final weekend of the season. He also had a 21-3 first-quarter lead, thanks to a pair of blocked punts returned for touchdowns. In time, though, the Gamecocks proved overmatched. Jesse Palmer threw three touchdowns passes and UF scored 38 unanswered points, including 28 in the second quarter, to plant another division flag -- the seventh in nine years since the introduction of the SEC Championship Game. "We look forward to it," Spurrier said. "We look forward to playing our best there." Palmer replaced struggling Rex Grossman to fire TDs of six yards to Reche Caldwell, 70 to Jabar Gaffney and six to offensive lineman Thomas Moody. Lito Sheppard returned a punt 57 yards for a score with two seconds to go in the half to wrap the second-quarter UF landslide.
Nov. 8, 2008 (at Nashville, Tenn.)
Florida 42, Vanderbilt 14
Pictured above, the fifth-ranked Gators scored on their first four possessions, thanks to an interception by Ahmad Black and blocked punt from Carlos Dunlap, in the first night game played in the series since 1982. It was Vandy's fourth straight loss, after a stunning 5-1 start, and was UF's fifth straight since quarterback Tim Tebow, who threw three TDs and ran for a couple more, made his famous "Promise" after a shocking one-point September loss to Ole Miss. "The attention to detail and the fact that we represent the eastern side of the SEC as a champion is a great accomplishment for our players," Meyer said.
Nov. 20, 1993 (at Gainesville, Fla.)
Florida 52, Vanderbilt 0
A year after taking those division championship photos at Vandy, the Gators took their East title quietly with them to the locker room after what was at the time the most lopsided shutout win in school history. "Last year, it was a major accomplishment for that team to win the Eastern Division championship," Spurrier said. "This is a nice accomplish, don't get me wrong, but we're hoping we can take some pictures later on." No doubt, he had the next week's showdown with No. 1 Florida State in mind, but the Charlie Ward came to town and handed UF its first home loss with Spurrier as coach. But pictures were taken. Florida went on to win the SEC title game (beating reigning national champion Alabama) then overwhelmed unbeaten and third-ranked West Virginia 41-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Both were Kodak moments, rest assured.
Nov. 12, 1994 (at Gainesville, Fla.)
Florida 48, South Carolina 17 On a windy day at Florida Field, Wuerffel threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns for a UF offense that smashed the Gamecocks for 521 yards while the defense held opposing quarterback Steve Taneyhill to a season-worst 87 yards. The win was significant because the Gators had to overcome a crushing midseason home defeat against Auburn -- the second year in a row with an upset loss to the Tigers, only this one came after six weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation. "The Auburn game is behind us," middle linebacker James Bates said after celebrating a senior night alongside the likes of Kevin Carter, Ellis Johnson and Aubrey Hill. "We're on the right track again." [Footnote: The Gators, a week after a numbing, infuriating tie at Florida State, went to the SEC title game and beat unbeaten Alabama 24-23 in one of the greatest games -- and finest coaching jobs by Spurrier -- in school history.]
Nov. 13, 1999 (at Columbia, S.C.)
Florida 20, South Carolina 3
How frustrated was Spurrier with his offense late in the '99 season? In the fourth quarter against the winless Gamecocks, the Gators ran 13 straight times, including a quarterback sneak on second-and-1 just to move the chains, keep the clocking tick and make it all end. "This," Spurrier said, "is what we are." Those word came after watching Palmer struggle to hit just 15 of 33 passes. "To win the SEC East, that's pretty good." The euphoria, if you want to call it that, didn't last very long. Two weeks later, the Gators lost a tough one at home to Florida State, then were destroyed 34-7 by Alabama in the conference title game.