No college football coach has beaten Georgia more than Steve Spurrier. He’s done it 16 times, once more than Auburn’s Shug Jordan. And each of those 16 wins is special and memorable, but there is one that sticks out for the Head Ball Coach.
The Gators’ 26-24 victory over the Bulldogs 25 years ago, in 1992.
“Yeah, that was my favorite because it put us in a position to win the division, which we did the next week at Vanderbilt,” Spurrier said. “It was sort of an Eastern Division championship game.
“(The Bulldogs) felt real good about the game. When we beat them that year it really demoralized them, it really did. Mentally, it affected them for a while.”
It was a demoralizing defeat for Georgia because that was the game where the Bulldogs were expecting to turn the rivalry back in their favor after losing to Spurrier’s first two Florida teams by a combined score of 83-20.
The circumstances then were similar to those heading into today’s game in Jacksonville.
The Bulldogs were ranked in the top 10 (No. 6) and a strong favorite. Few were giving the Gators a chance against a deep and talented Georgia team that featured quarterback Eric Zeier, tailbacks Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis and many other standouts. (As a side note, Will Muschamp was a sophomore safety on that team).
And Florida was a team that had pretty much been dismissed earlier in the season after consecutive blowout SEC losses to Tennessee and Mississippi State. Also, it was a young team that included two true freshmen starting at offensive tackle — Reggie Green and Jason Odom.
“Georgia had Eric Zeier and Garrison Hearst and all those great players, and we weren’t the greatest team in the world. We were very young,” said former All-SEC UF quarterback Shane Matthews, who was a senior in 1992. “I remember we had no business being in that game. They were a better overall football team.”
UGA was the better team with the better record, but the Bulldogs also had one SEC loss, meaning the Gators still had what was considered a slim shot to win the division in the newly expanded SEC. For the Gators to reach the first SEC Championship Game in Birmingham, they would have to win out against UGA and Vanderbilt and hope Tennessee lost a third league game.
UF’s chances went way up just before kickoff when the Gators learned the Vols had just been upset by South Carolina 24-23.
“That day when we were in Jacksonville, South Carolina beat Tennessee, the only time in 13 years. They beat them 25-24, something like that,” Spurrier said. “Whatever it was, if we beat Georgia, and we had to beat Vandy the next week, we would win the division.
“It was a heck of a game.”
It started well for the Gators, with UF driving for a field goal on the game’s opening possession for a 3-0 lead.
But the early momentum was gone in seconds. On the Bulldogs’ first offensive play, fullback Frank Harvey took a handoff from Zeier and shot threw a big hole in the middle of the UF defense, racing 80 yards untouched for a touchdown.
It was a potential devastating body blow to the underdog Gators. But it turned out to have little effect.
Matthews, along with his receivers and tailback Errict Rhett, responded by cranking up the Fun ‘n’ Gun and taking over the rest of the first half, building a 23-7 halftime lead.
“We jumped on them pretty good early,” Spurrier said. “Their fullback went for 80 yards or something like that. Then we came roaring back.”
Matthews, who would throw for 301 yards in the game, connected with wide receivers Willie Jackson and Harrison Houston for touchdown passes to help the Gators build what appeared to be a pretty comfortable lead.
But Georgia, led by Zeier and Hearst, stormed back in the second half, and the Gators found themselves hanging on in the fourth quarter.
“In the second half, we didn’t do much,” Spurrier said.
Not until they had to.
With a little more than four minutes remaining, the Bulldogs scored a touchdown to make it a two-point game, 26-24.
The way Zeier and the ’Dogs were playing on offense, the Gators knew if they didn’t run out the clock there was a good chance the game would be lost.
“Zeier was pretty hot,” Spurrier said. “We had to make three (first downs). We threw a (pass) for the first first down. Then Shane scrambled out of the pocket and hit Harrison Houston right in front of our bench for the second one.
“Then we put in a quarterback draw (on third-and-seven) from underneath and they were in the perfect defense for us. Shane ran it out for the first down.”
And the game was over.
Matthews said his clearest memory of the game was peering over to the sideline and seeing Spurrier call for the quarterback draw.
“All I remember about that game is us sealing it when he signaled in the quarterback draw,” Matthews said. “I was shocked. I had about an eight or nine-yard run. I followed Errict Rhett and we sealed the victory.”
It was a great win, a memorable win, and it helped turn a potentially disappointing season to a championship year with the division title.
“Give a lot of credit to Coach Spurrier and his staff for keeping the team together,” Matthews said. “Somehow, he pieced it together and we found a way to represent the East in the championship game.”
Today, Jim McElwain and his staff are trying to do the same thing Spurrier and his did 25 years ago — piece things together and try to find a way to upset the Bulldogs.
Knowing the rivalry the way they do, Spurrier and Matthews say the two-touchdown underdog Gators have a chance.
“We need to play very well, no turnovers and things like that,” Spurrier said. “Make some first downs and don’t make the defense play the whole game. We’ve got to make some first downs and consume some clock.
“I think we can run the ball on almost anybody. We have to hit some passes that we haven’t hit yet. But if we have a really, really good team performance and they don’t have their best, sure we can beat them.”
Matthews also sees a path to victory.
“The Florida defense is the best (Georgia) has played all season. By far,” he said. “If we can make some plays, anything can happen in this game.
“All the pressure is on Georgia trying to get to Atlanta. We’re going to have to score some points somehow. Get some turnovers and give the offense some short fields and play well on special teams. It’s going to be tough, but they’ve got a chance.”
Just like Matthews and the Gators had 25 years ago.
Who: Florida (3-3, 3-2 SEC) vs. No. 3 Georgia (7-0, 4-0)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.