War Stories is a feature devoted to discussing the most memorable games in the history of Florida's rivalries. Previously in War Stories: The most memorable Florida-Tennessee games, Nos. 10-6 and Nos. 5-1.
Today, Neil continues his three-part look at the Florida-LSU rivalry. You can read Tuesday's ranking of games No. 15 to No. 11 here.
10) No. 18 LSU 36, No. 16 Florida 7: LSU Renews the Rivalry (October 12, 2002)
In terms of how exciting this game was, it wouldn't even make the list. But the impact this game had on the rivalry can't be ignored.
The game itself actually started out okay for Florida: After being picked off twice by Corey Webster (including one pick-six), Rex Grossman settled down and started to move the ball a bit. Down 13-0, Grossman rallied the Gators for a touchdown drive, hitting Taylor Jacobs to cut the deficit to 13-7 at halftime and giving fans some hope.
But the second half was absolutely miserable for both sides of the ball. The Gators' offense was shut out and the defense was torched by LSU quarterback Matt Mauck, as Florida surrendered the final 23 points of the game. It would be the first time Florida fans left the stadium en masse, booing in disgust, during the Zook years, but it would certainly not be the last. The 2002 Gators' earlier loss to Miami was understandable, because Miami then was like Alabama now, dominating every team in its way. Plus, Florida was in that game for a while, even holding a lead at some points in the game.
Against LSU, Florida simply failed to show up, and the result was a loss even worse than what the Hurricanes did to the Gators.
Here's where I justify bringing this game into the list to begin with. Florida had won 13 of the past 14 games with LSU entering 2002, and seven of those 13 wins were by more than 20 points. It was very similar to the domination Florida enjoyed over Georgia in that time frame.
But before the late 1980s, the Florida-LSU series was a great series. There were lots of close games, crazy finishes and big story lines surrounding the (for the most part) annual rivals. Steve Spurrier changed that, inflicting loss after loss on LSU.
And after being thumped in his first two games against Florida, Nick Saban repaid much of that frustration with a 36-7 thumping of his own. Since then, this rivalry has been one of the most closely contested battles in college football. The teams exchanged 30-point massacres in 2008 and 2011, but other than that, no matchup since then has been decided by more than 13 points. Five of the 10 games since that 2002 game have been decided by one score. That's a sign of a great rivalry, when half the games are decided by one possession.
It all started with this game. For a rivalry to be a rivalry, both teams have to win, and Saban taught the Tigers how to do their part. Les Miles would carry it on, but without such a convincing win to announce their return to contention in this series, I'm not so sure LSU ever really makes this rivalry fun again.
9) Florida 16, LSU 13: College Football's First "Overtime" Game (October 7, 1989)
Neither team was ranked for this late night game in Baton Rouge. It didn't matter in the least, as the two teams staged one of the most exciting defensive battles in the game's histor y.. for the most part.
Individually, the night belonged to Emmitt Smith. Smith went off on the Tigers, scoring a touchdown to give the Gators a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter. But LSU drove right back, kicking the game tying field goal with 1:19 to go. Florida quarterback Kyle Morris calmly led the Gators down into LSU territory and into field goal position.
With 18 seconds left, Smith took a handoff and bounced right, looking for room. But there was nowhere to go, and Smith was tackled inbounds as the clock drained down and Morris frantically tried to get the Gators lined up to spike the ball so the Gators could get a field goal attempt. With two seconds on the clock, he took the snap and heaved it out of bounds as the clock showed zeroes.
Fireworks exploded as LSU fans celebrated a tie with the favored Gators, but the refs got together to discuss adding time to the clock. After a minute or so, the officials ruled that there was indeed one second left. The LSU fans booed and screamed bloody murder as Arden Czyzewski lined up to attempt a game-winning 41-yard field goal, one he nailed to give Florida the 16-13 victory.
This turned out to be the final game of Galen Hall's coaching career. He wound up resigning the very next day because of ... well, we all know why he resigned, and there's no reason to revisit that whole story. But regardless of the shame Hall brought to the Gator football program, this was quite a way to go out. Neither team really needed the victory (LSU finished with a losing record, and Florida wound up in the lowly Freedom Bowl) but it was just another really exciting game between the two teams. That's something unique about this rivalry: Even when both teams are bad, they find a way to orchestrate a really good game.
Another noteworthy fact about this game is that it began a four-game winning streak for Florida in Baton Rouge. We've already mentioned how Florida has historically had an incredible amount of success in Death Valley, and this game was the beginning of a long nightmare for Tigers fans who came to Tiger Stadium when Florida did.
8) No. 12 Florida 51, No. 3 LSU 21: National Champions Duel (October 11, 2008)
The Full Game
The buildup surrounding this game was incredible. It was the 2006 national champion, Florida, against the 2007 national champion, LSU. The year before, LSU had won an instant classic in Baton Rouge, after LSU fans hijacked Tim Tebow's cell phone and sent him hundreds of threatening and nasty voice mails and text messages. LSU lineman Ricky Jean-Francois swore that he'd do one better in 2008, by taking Tebow out of the game, noting that Florida had an excellent training facility that Tebow could go to afterwards.
After all that, the game was almost anticlimactic. Tebow threw a 70-yard touchdown to Percy Harvin three plays into the game, and that was that. LSU gained just four yards in the first quarter and Florida built a 17-0 lead in the period. The Tigers did admittedly make some Gator fans, including myself, nervous, by piecing together back-to-back touchdown drives bridging the second and third quarters to cut the Florida lead to 20-14 shortly after halftime, but Tebow calmly responded with a touchdown drive of his own. When he walked into the end zone from two yards out, the game was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Of course, it wasn't really over, because Urban Meyer likes to put up points. In this game, it was just a question of how many, in an attempt to really rub it in to all those LSU fans who placed a call to his beloved Tebow, and maybe Ricky Jean-Francois, too. Jeff Demps added a long touchdown run in the third quarter, and Brandon Spikes scored on a pick-six and added insult to injury by booting the ball into the stands in the fourth, something I thought would bring flames out of Meyer's mouth and nose. Even the CBS announcers, Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson, didn't take too kindly to it.
But Meyer just smiled and turned away, and how can you blame him? Even though drawing a celebration penalty is not the smartest thing to do, the score put the Gators up 41-14, and besides, there were some LSU fans who simply deserved to watch their team absorb a thorough beating after harassing a college kid with all those messages. (Side note: Most LSU fans I know are actually really nice people who are much more likely to say "good game" than flip me off. Those folks would make up by far the classiest fan base among Florida's rivals ... but there are also some really bad people who unfortunately cheer for LSU.)
Meyer may have been content to stop at 41-14, but LSU scored a late touchdown, and, of course, Meyer would never let them have the last word, so the Gators added a field goal and one more touchdown drive, highlighted by Chris Rainey and Demps going off for several big runs. Kestahn Moore capped it all off with a touchdown to make the final 51-21.
To me, Florida's beatdown of Georgia was the most memorable game of the magical 2008 season for obvious reasons. But its torching of LSU was right there at No. 2. As bad as LSU turned out to be in 2008 (the Tigers finished 8-5, and lost to Mississippi by 18 at home), the big win gave Florida a ton of confidence to beat highly-ranked teams. This was the best game Florida had played since walloping Ohio State for the national championship two years earlier, and set the tone for a run through the rest of the SEC schedule to Florida's third national championship.
Had Florida lost this game, it wouldn't have made a difference in terms of the SEC Championship. Florida would have tied with Georgia, and won the tiebreaker due to the 49-10 curb-stomping administered in Jacksonville. But with a loss to LSU at home, Texas, Utah, or maybe even Southern Cal would have been placed in the national championship game to face Oklahoma.
Florida did win, though, and in gigantic fashion, vaulting itself right back into the national title picture. Thanks, Urban.
7) No. 5 Florida 23, No. 9 LSU 10: Tebow's Coming Out Party (October 7, 2006)
For the first time ever, somehow, both teams entered the game ranked in the top 10. This little tidbit promised an entertaining game, and the Gators did not disappoint. One year after a bitter defeat that made Urban Meyer cry, the Gators played like their lives depended on it — and the Tigers played somewhat less effectively.
After an early touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Jacob Hester, Florida settled down and took advantage of an endless array of LSU mistakes. First, a muffed punt gave the Gators the ball deep in LSU territory, and Tim Tebow confirmed his arrival to college football's main stage by bowling over LaRon Landry on his way to the 5 on his first carry. On his second carry, he punched it in for the touchdown.
Russell, meanwhile, continued to provide an encore of his 2005 performance turning the ball over left and right. First, he fumbled at the Gators' goal line. Florida couldn't do anything with it, though, and punted. No problem: Russell wasted little time before throwing a pick to Ryan Smith deep in Florida territory. Chris Leak then hit Jamalle Cornelius deep into LSU territory to set up a first and goal with a few seconds left in the half.
Urban Meyer then turned to Tebow to give Florida a halftime lead — and one of the most memorable plays in Florida history.
Tebow took the snap, and plunged up the middle — then fumbled. At least that's what it looked like, initially, to me, because I couldn't believe he would deliberately throw the ball, and especially not in such an awkward motion. It looked like he tried to jump over the pile and lost it on the way up. Then I saw the replay ... and to this day, I can't believe what I saw. Tebow took two steps towards the line, stopped, jumped, pump-faked in mid-air, and pushed the ball through the air — right to Tate Casey for the touchdown. Florida took a 14-7 lead with seconds to go before halftime, and a freshman had been integral in producing both of them.
After that, the game was basically over. LSU fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, which turned into a safety. Florida got the free kick and drove right down the field, capped off by a beautiful 35-yard TD pass from Tebow to Louis Murphy. That made it 23-7, and the Gators were perfectly happy to sit back and watch LSU continue to self-destruct. Russell tried to lead a comeback, but turned it over instead, finishing with three picks on the day. The last one sealed the game, and Florida won, 23-10.
Well, any time the best college football player in history (or one of them, anyway) breaks out in one game, it's kind of hard to not remember it, right? Tebow had only been used as a battering ram and a mop-up QB to that point, in a role similar to that of Oklahoma QB Blake Bell in his early days. But against LSU, he got significant action, and outscored LSU all by himself, accounting for three touchdowns.
For Florida, the win turned out to be huge, even though it lost to Auburn the very next week: It would be arguably their best win of the year, which had a hand in the Gators being selected over Michigan to play Ohio State in the national title game. Meanwhile, this loss cost LSU a shot at the national title. Had they won, they would have set up a rematch with the Gators for the SEC Championship, and had they won, it very well might have been the Tigers in the BCS Championship against Ohio State — in January 2007, not January 2008.
6) No. 24 LSU 24, No. 12 Florida 21: Backup Leads LSU Back (October 9, 2004)
The first quarter could not have gone any better for Florida in The Swamp. JaMarcus Russell was his usual self against the Gators, throwing picks left and right, and the Gators capitalized to take a commanding 14-0 lead after 15 minutes. But after being sacked late in the first quarter, Russell was injured and knocked out of the game. Nick Saban sent in Marcus Randall, who calmly brought the Tigers back into the game.
First came an impressive 80-yard, 14-play drive that culminated in Alley Broussard punching it in from one yard out. After Chris Leak responded with a touchdown to O.J. Small, Randall led another 80-yard touchdown drive, capping this one off with a 15 yard strike to Early Doucet to cut the lead to 21-14 at halftime. It looked like it would be a shootout, with the first team to 40 winning ... except that Florida's offense was completely shut down in the second half, and LSU stopped turning it over and gifting Florida with great field position.
Even still, Florida's defense had a chance to make a stop and win the game. Conversely, LSU's offense had a chance to put together a touchdown drive and win the game. With all you know about Ron Zook teams' late-game performances, who do you think won that battle? You guessed it, and the winning play was a dump off to Joseph Addai, who bulled him way into the end zone with 27 seconds left, scoring the game-winning touchdown.
Where to start? This game set off a chain reaction across the entire country. Had one thing gone Florida's way that didn't, college football as we know it today would probably be very, very different.
First, Florida would have been 5-1 and ranked in the top 10 two weeks later against Mississippi State. Zook's team would have been sniffing a trip to Atlanta, and I'm inclined to believe the team would not have come out so flat against MSU. And the Gators probably wouldn't have come out so flat against Georgia the week later, since Zook would probably not have been fired had Florida beaten the Tigers or won in Starkville. With a win over LSU, and sweep of the SEC's Bulldogs — not that far-fetched, considering the Gators played dead both days — and suddenly, Florida would've sat at 7-1, been in the national championship discussion, and preserved Zook's job.
Even if both those losses to the Bulldogs still stood, and every other result that season was unchanged, I'm pretty sure Zook keeps his job at least through the end of the season with a win against LSU, considering the end of the season win at 10th-ranked Florida State would have gotten the Gators to 8-3.
Bottom line: Had Florida beaten LSU in 2004, Jeremy Foley wouldn't have been looking for a reason to fire Zook so early.
We all know that Zook would have gotten fired at some point thereafter — how could he not with big game collapse after big game collapse? But Foley would not have gotten the head start in searching for a new coach, and thus would not have gotten Urban Meyer. Now, there are millions of other programs that this would affect, namely Notre Dame, but we'll just focus on the Gators' side of it. We all know the story of Foley demanding that Steve Spurrier re-interview for the head coaching position, and Spurrier not wanting any part of that; maybe, if Foley didn't have Meyer in mind, he would've been more willing to work with Spurrier to get him back, and maybe Spurrier would be the Gators' coach to this day. Of course, that wouldn't exactly be the worst thing to happen, but it would mean that Tebow would likely have played his college football elsewhere. Spurrier probably would have signed guys like Sam Bradford and Aaron Murray, who likely would have jumped at the prospect of playing for the Fun 'n Gun 2.0
Or maybe it wouldn't have been Spurrier. Maybe somebody entirely different gets hired and it turns out great for Florida anyway, and maybe Zook's replacement would've been even worse than he was. We'll never know, but we do know Florida fans actually do owe Ron Zook a sincere thank you for two reasons. One of them was his recruiting, which left Florida stocked for the 2006 championship run. Though nobody could argue that Florida wins the BCS Championship without the help of freshmen — Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon James, in particular — the upperclassmen recruited by Zook formed the foundation of that team's success.
The second reason Florida fans owe Zook is because his inability to mold that talent himself into anything better than it was allowed Foley to get a better coach sooner than if Zook had been marginally better than he was. If Zook wins one game more every season than he did, Florida would've gone 9-4, 9-4, and 8-4 in his three seasons. You can't really fire a coach with numbers like that after three. Four losses per year is bad, but not bad enough — which, ironically, is worse for a program with national championship aspirations like Florida.
But enough with the what-ifs. Florida did lose this game, Saban left after that season anyway, and each team got a new coach who brought glory to his employer. Both teams walked away happy, and set the stage for some of the best games in the rivalry.
More from Alligator Army:
- Florida's no-fly zone: Gators' pass defense yielding very little in 2013
- Florida vs. LSU, War Stories: The most memorable Gators-Tigers games, Nos. 15-11
- Florida vs. LSU: Will Muschamp, Tyler Murphy address media
- Florida vs. LSU: Tigers installed as touchdown favorites over Gators
- SEC Power Poll ballot, Week 6: Tide at No. 1, Gators at No. 4