Florida, eliminated from national title contention a week earlier, knocked Alabama out of the race for No. 1 by beating the Crimson Tide at its own game Saturday.
The Gators had proven they could blow teams out, but they finally showed they could win a tight one - Bama's speciality - with an 80-yard, fourth-quarter drive that gave Florida a 24-23 victory in the Southeastern Conference championship."There were people doubting us in the close ones before today," said Florida cornerback Larry Kennedy. "Now we can say that we can play 60 minutes and win the close ballgame."
Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who pulled out nearly every trick in his offensive playbook on the game-winning drive, seemed especially pleased after becoming the first coach to win three SEC titles in his first five years, including two in a row.
"It feels nice to win a close one," said Spurrier, whose team had blown out nine opponents by an average of 35 points but lost to Auburn on a last-second touchdown and tied arch-rival Florida State last week after squandering a 28-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Spurrier nodded to defensive tackle Ellis Johnson, the game's MVP. "We don't have to listen to people say we can't win a close one," the coach said.
Danny Wuerffel hit Chris Doering with a 2-yard touchdown pass with 5:29 remaining and Judd Davis kicked the deciding extra point as the Gators (10-1-1) earned their second straight SEC title and a rematch with Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama (11-1) will have to settle for the Citrus Bowl against Ohio State.
The Tide, which had beaten its 10 major-college opponents by a total of 80 points, went to the fourth quarter trailing for the fifth time this season. But the cardiac kids appeared on their way to another comeback victory when freshman Dwayne Rudd picked off a Wuerffel pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown to put Alabama ahead 22-17 with 8:56 remaining.
"I thought we were going to win the game," Alabama coach Gene Stallings said.
On the opposite sideline, Spurrier was in shock and didn't even initially notice that Stallings was making a decision sure to be debated for years: He sent Michael Proctor on to kick the extra point rather than going for the 2-point conversion which could have given the Tide a seven-point lead.
Afterward, Stallings was asked repeatedly why he spurned the 2-point try, and grew increasingly exasperated with the queries.
"We thought about going for 2," he said. "If you go for 2 and make it, they would have had to score and make 2 to (win). If you go for 2 and don't make it, two field goals win it for them. There's no doubt in my mind that it was the right decision at the time."
"We have so much to be comforted by and happy with," Barker said. "We've had a great season and with a win in the bowl game, we could go 12-1."