Originally created 12/08/96

Florida wins fifth consecutive SEC title



ATLANTA - Thanks to Danny Wuerffel and Texas, Florida will get an improbable second chance to win its first national championship.

Wuerffel threw for 401 yards and six touchdowns in a Heisman-like performance and the No. 4 Gators set up a Sugar Bowl rematch with top-ranked Florida State by beating No. 15 Alabama 45-30 for the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday night.

A week after their devastating loss to Florida State, the Gators (11-1) took the field for the SEC championship knowing No. 3 Nebraska had been upset by Texas, 37-27, in the Big 12 title game. That gave Florida a chance to slide into the Sugar Bowl, and the Gators took advantage.

Wuerffel, making a strong case that he deserves the Heisman, threw for more touchdowns in one night than Alabama (9-3) had given up the entire season. The Tide came in having surrendered only five scoring passes with the top-ranked pass defense in the country.

None of that seemed to matter to Wuerffel, who endured several big hits behind a makeshift offensive line but managed to throw three touchdown passes to Reidel Anthony and one each to Elijah Williams, Ike Hilliard and Jacquez Green.

Alabama tried to match Florida score-for-score, but that was an imposssible task against Wuerffel and the Gators, who put the Fun-n-Gun back in their offense after a 24-21 loss to Florida State the week before.

Florida won its fourth consecutive SEC title, one short of the record held by Bear Bryant and Alabama. More important, though, the Gators head into the bowl season for the second straight year with a chance for a national title.

Last season, Florida was routed by Nebraska in a Fiesta Bowl matchup of the two top-ranked teams. This time, the Gators' fate isn't entirely in their hands, since they need to beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl and hope No. 2 Arizona State loses to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

Two years ago, Florida and Florida State also met in a Sugar Bowl rematch after a 31-31 tie in the regular season. Florida State won the bowl, 23-17.

Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who is stepping down at the end of the season, was denied an SEC title as a going-away present. The Tide likely will head to the Outback Bowl for Stallings' final game and a chance to end his seven-year tenure with an even 70 victories.

After Alabama jumped to a 7-0 lead on Dennis Riddle's 36-yard catch and run, Florida reeled off 24 consecutive points. Wuerffel connected with Hilliard for a 46-yard touchdown, Anthony for a 21-yard score and Williams for a 45-yard TD.

The Crimson Tide cut the gap to 24-14 at halftime, scoring with just 29 seconds remaining on an 8-yard pass from Freddie Kitchens to Michael Vaughn. But that was just a warmup for the wild third quarter.

Alabama cut the Gators' lead to 24-21 after Florida punter Robby Stevenson fumbled a low snap and the ball was knocked out of bounds at the 5. On the next play, Riddle scored his second touchdown.

But Florida responded with a 65-yard drive that was capped off by Wuerffel's 13-yard touchdown pass to Anthony. That put the Gators ahead 31-21.

Alabama, facing a third-and-10 on its own 6, stunned Florida with a 94-yard touchdown pass from Kitchens to Vaughn, who sprinted past Fred Weary down the left sideline and caught the ball 10 yards ahead of the cornerback.

Less than a minute after the Tide's touchdown, Wuerffel dropped back and delivered an 85-yard touchdown to Jacquez Green, who beat Fernando Bryant in a carbon-copy play. Florida led 38-28 at that point and Stallings, ranting on the sideline about the blown coverage, seemed to sense that Alabama was done.

Wuerffel closed out his touchdown barrage with a 21-yarder to Anthony on the first play of the fourth quarter, matching his career high for scoring passes in a game. Anthony finished with 11 receptions for 171 yards - astonishing numbers against a defense which was allowing only 12.4 points per game and ranked at the top of the SEC in all major defensive categories.