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Uncrowned kings: An ode to the 2001 Florida Gators, the best to never win a title

Spurrier’s final team ran the Fun ‘n Gun on steroids — and boy, were there side effects.

Steve Spurrier/Rex Grossman

Like everyone else, in my desperation for sports and to stave off cabin fever during this time at home, I began watching old Florida football games on YouTube. It started with the ’08 national championship game. With the rabbit hole opened, I started searching for games in which Percy Harvin did something special so that I could marvel at his ridiculous talent and laugh.

Over the course of the past week, I slowly traveled back in time until I was watching games from 1991. If you need a reminder of how much football has changed in almost 30 years, Florida’s base defense that year was a 4-4-3, which I’m assuming was Florida’s version of the popular 46 defense from that era because a) Ron Zook was the defensive coordinator and b) Zook was always quick to do what’s popular at the time, but with less effective results. (To his credit: Florida’s defense was good that year.)

In between all of this, I watched a few games from one of my favorite teams and the one I think is the best Florida team to never win a title — that 2001. And when I was asked to write about one of my favorite teams ever, I jumped at the chance because I want to get in on this sweet, sweet nostalgia train that we’re all riding right now.

There’s a void to fill, so let’s fill it with recollections of greatness.

The most exciting teams in college football are the ones who slide wildly on the spectrum of competene from deadly execution and talent to complete meltdown from game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, or play-to-play (see: pre-2019 LSU, pretty much every Auburn team ever, any team associated with Houston Nutt). This was, believe it or not, also true of 2001 Florida, a supremely talented team that scared the bejeezus out of defensive coordinators, but one that had a self-destructive side.

How destructive? Well, in 2000, Florida’s defense led the nation in takeaways with 40 and a turnover margin of +19. They were unreal at forcing turnovers — in the last 11 years, with most teams playing 13 and 14 games, only five FBS programs have forced 40 turnovers in a season, with none doing so in the last five years — and expecting them to do it for a second consecutive year was unreasonable, since turnovers are mostly luck.

With largely the same group returning in 2001, they only forced 22. And on offense? This was a rather charitable endeavor, with the Gators turning it over 26 times. (Yes, I am going to make a case that a team with a negative turnover margin was an all-time great team.)

Penalties were also a problem as they were one of the most penalized teams in the country, (Is it truly a Florida team if they’re not one of the most penalized teams in the country? Scholars call this the Elam Paradox.) All together, these miscues would be part of this team’s undoing. I’ll get to their other undoing, which rhymes with Schmavis Teephens, later because I don’t want everyone to start lighting stuff on fire just yet.

So, how good was this team? Well, statistically, they led the nation in passing efficiency and passing offense and were second in total offense and scoring offense. They led the SEC in passing efficiency, passing offense, total offense, scoring offense ... and total defense, passing efficiency defense, and scoring defense.

For those of you who are more swayed by advanced stats and not antiquated ones like total offense and total defense, please forgive me, as the most recent season I found with advanced stats was 2005. However, Bill Connelly did write up a piece on the 2001 season with retroactive overall S&P+ rankings. Where did Florida land in those rankings? Second, behind only the so-called “greatest ever” Miami Hurricanes. The Gators were first in Offensive S&P+ and 12th defensively. You can check out more of that article here.

As you can probably surmise, this was Steve Spurrier’s best passing offense. I’m stopping short of saying this was his best overall offense — at times, they could be one-dimensional, due to running back Earnest Graham injuring his ankle against LSU and playing at something less than 100 percent for the rest of the season. When Graham wasn’t in the game, Robert Gillespie was less effective as a between-the-tackles runner and third-string back, Ran Carthon, for whatever reason, wasn’t given a bigger role. As a result, Florida attempted their most passes for a season under Spurrier.

But this is also the only Spurrier team to average more than 400 yards passing a game. Even without a real run game, they still did whatever they wanted to do through the air — and if Graham was available, even hobbled, they were unstoppable.

The offenses that Spurrier organized in ’95 and ’96 were finely-tuned machines led by upperclassmen. It was polished and precise, with Danny Wuerffel’s accuracy being the hallmark and key of an offense tinkered to perfection. It took generational defenses with nasty linemen that could demolish skyscrapers like Nebraska and Florida State to knock the gears loose.

2001 was something entirely different. It was led by underclassmen, most notably some kid from Indiana with a rocket launcher strapped to his right shoulder, and while these Gators had a strong grasp of the offense, what made them different was their fearlessness and ability to adapt when things broke down, for better or worse. A fumbled snap or 10-yard penalty wasn’t always a drive killer, and it sometimes seemed like they just wanted to challenge themselves, perhaps because they were bored. “Oh no, we have a third and 15! How on Earth will w—jk, 30-yard pickup on a crossing pattern, LOL.

It could be sloppy at times. But when it was rolling, my god, it was fun.

It’s well known that Spurrier was never a big recruiter, but in 1999 and 2000, Florida pulled in the No. 1 and No. 2 recruiting classes in the country, respectively. For a guy whose recruiting pitch amounted toIf ya wanna score touchdowns, come here. If not, I’m still gonna win 10 games and play golf,” it was beyond impressive: The talent he brought in from those two classes would be the building blocks of arguably his most talented team ever.

From top to bottom, they were loaded. Some of my favorite Gators of all-time were on this team: Rex Grossman, Alex Brown, Lito Sheppard, Ben Troupe, Keiwan Ratliff, Mike Pearson, Shannon Snell, and Max Starks. Also, two of the more underrated players in school history, Andra Davis and Todd Johnson, were starters on defense. Heck, Ratliff and Guss Scott were backups in a secondary that was rounded out by Marquand Manuel and Bennie Alexander.

Four Gators garnered First-Team All-America honors and eight claimed First-Team All-SEC honors. In the NFL Draft, from 2002 to 2004, 21 players from this team would be selected. (They also had two All-Name players in Byron “Bam” Hardmon, which is a great name for a football player, but a perfect name for a linebacker, and Tron LaFavor. We had a guy named Tron before Dave Chappelle made it cool. There’s some salty language at that link, but are you at work right now? Thought so.)

The most important building block — the one that was the foundation for this prolific offense — was one Rex Daniel Grossman III. A four-star prospect from Bloomington, Indiana who wasn’t being recruited by Florida, but wanted to play for Steve Spurrier so bad that he sent him his highlight tapes. If Danny Wuerffel was Spurrier’s Captain America, in that he was a perfect quarterback created in a lab for the Fun ‘N Gun, then Rex Grossman was one of the later test subjects who came out with enhanced abilities to the original, buuuuut had some, shall we say, genetic flaws that would show themselves later on. Grossman had a stronger arm and quicker release than Wuerffel, and was more mobile to boot, but had the unfortunate drawback of spontaneously combusting like the super soldiers in Iron Man 3. This defect was more of a problem in the NFL than college, but the signs were there.

Despite his explode-y nature, Grossman is my favorite Florida QB of all-time because it was a thing of beauty to watch him in Spurrier’s offense (we don’t have to acknowledge his 2002 season under Zook and Ed Zaunbrecher). He’s never had a choir boy image like Wuerffel and Tebow, nor does he have the career numbers those two put up, but the way he played is what I love. I enjoy watching a quarterback sling dimes all over the field and he did that better than Florida’s last two Heisman winners.

It’s why I had so much fun watching Joe Burrow last year, even if he made Florida’s defense look like it resided in the Big 12: He was what Rex once was. With all due respect to the Air Raid and every team that has run in it in the last 20 years, I prefer what LSU’s offense did to the efforts put forth by everyone else specifically because it reminded me so much of Spurrier and Grossman in 2001. Both offenses had Heisman candidates at quarterback, a pro-style passing game, excellent play calling, a trio of talented receivers that always seemed open, and a small, but powerful running back on hand that you could rely on. (Only the numbers are different: If you need a reminder of how much football has changed in almost 20 years, Grossman threw 34 touchdowns in 2001, while Burrow threw 60 last year.)

Every week, Grossman would make at least one throw that would make you laugh at how nuts it was. While rewatching games this week, one in particular stood out to me. Against Auburn, he had his worst game, but in the third quarter with about 8:35 remaining, he rolled a few steps to his right to avoid the rush and with two defenders about to sandwich him, then zipped a pass back across the field to Reche Caldwell along the sideline for an 18-yard gain. It was not a throw he should have made, but it was effortless and perfect.

Throws like that were plentiful in his career.

With the exception of his touchdown and interception totals, Grossman’s statistics across the board in 2001 were better than Wuerffel’s Heisman season in ‘96. For those of you that are younger and don’t remember the 2001 season and have heard older fans bemoan the fact that Grossman did not win the Heisman, we are not being biased fans for the sake of being bias. It is a crime — or at least it should be — that he did not win it. Eric Crouch won the award that year, and he was a fine quarterback at Nebraska, but the award going to him is in the same boat as Mark Ingram winning over Ndamukong Suh: A travesty accepted over time as exactly that.

Before Tim Tebow won the award in 2007, some Heisman voters simply refused to vote for an underclassman like Grossman, which is among the dumber hills to die on in sports history, but, what can you do? They’ve at least wised up since. It’s in the past now. I’ve moved on.

I absolutely do not have money set aside to one day pay Grossman to throw footballs at those voters’ nether regions. Nope, I’d be a crazy person to have $9,743.19 saved in a shoebox in my closet with the words “Revenge Money: DO NOT TOUCH” scrawled in crayon across the top.

Grossman had total mastery of Spurrier’s offense while firing ropes to a dangerous group of receivers that began with Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and Taylor Jacobs. The only season in UF history to have two receivers each reach 1,000 yards receiving was 2001, when Gaffney and Caldwell did so. That mark also made Gaffney (who was only a sophomore, mind you) the only Gator to ever have two 1,000-yard receiving seasons in his career. And behind that Big Three, you had smaller contributions from Carlos Perez, Kelvin Kight, and OJ Small, who would all have bigger roles during the less than optimal Zook years.

There was no better display of this offense’s brilliance — and, really, Grossman’s — than its curtain-closer, the 2002 Orange Bowl vs. Maryland. Before the game, Spurrier announced that Grossman would not start because he missed curfew the night before, surprising exactly zero people who knew of Rex Grossman. Brock Berlin, the highest-rated recruit Spurrier ever signed, got the start. He did ... fine, I guess, completing 11 of 19 passes for 196 yards, a touchdown, and two picks. The offense wasn’t terrible, but Spurrier got antsy — as is his nature — and pulled Berlin with about four minutes left in the second quarter and a 14-10 lead in favor of the Sex Cannon.

From there, Grossman put on a show that I can only describe as arousing. I don’t care if that makes you uncomfortable.

He threw two touchdowns before halftime. I’ll repeat that again: He entered the game with four minutes remaining in the first half and managed to throw two touchdown passes in that span. Overall, in less than two-and-a-half quarters or work, he threw for 248 yards on 20 for 28 passing, with four TDs and no picks, leading to an easy 56-23 victory.

It was his masterpiece.

I love watching this game because you can see the contrast in how well the offense operates between Berlin and Grossman. It was night and day. Again, Berlin wasn’t terrible: They moved the ball with him in there, but the two interceptions and an Earnest Graham fumble prevented them from adding more points. Florida more than likely would have won that game without Grossman taking a snap.

With him, it was an unfair fight.

This was true for the whole season. The 2001 Gators’ average margin of victory in the regular season was +36.8. That’s five touchdowns and a safety. Per game.

Let’s compare that to some of the great modern Florida teams:

  • 1995: +27.6
  • 1996: +34.6
  • 2006: +18.1
  • 2008: +37.3
  • 2009: +26.7

Their only margin of victory under 24 points was a 24-10 win against Georgia — one that would have been much worse had they not turned the ball over four times, including twice in the red zone.

In their other wins, they vanquished their competition. They beat eventual SEC champion LSU 44-15 — in Baton Rouge. The No. 14 South Carolina Gamecocks got a wild, but ill-advised hair up their butt and decided to hold a blackout game to welcome the Gators to Columbia. Florida was more than happy to nudge the Gamecocks into the grave they dug themselves and tamp the dirt tight in a 54-17 win.

Mississippi State rolled into The Swamp a year after upsetting Florida in Starkville, where one of Florida’s team managers got knocked down in the ensuing celebration. The Bulldogs did not get a chance to celebrate in Gainesville. Brock Berlin tossed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Kight with under two minutes to play to cap off a 52-0 revenge win. Spurrier gave the game ball to the team manager and told him that last touchdown was for him.

They put 71 on Vanderbilt because they could. They opened the season beating down a very good Marshall team — one led by Byron Leftwich, and which would win 11 games and score 27 points in all 12 of its other contests — 49-14. In games two and three, they pasted a couple of Sun Belt opponents, Louisiana-Monroe 55-6 and Kentucky 44-10. (I know what I said.) Oh, and they ended the regular season by beating the hell out of Florida State, 37-13.

Quite frankly, this team was not to be trifled with. They smoked their competition.

Except for when they didn’t.

So, look, okay: We’ve come to the point where we need to talk about their two losses. I mean, I don’t have to talk about this. I could change the script, like they do for any movie that is based on real life, to make it more interesting or appealing. You know that lame thing Hollywood always does where the protagonist comes out on top and everyone’s happy even if it isn’t entirely true? I could say the 2001 Florida Gators went undefeated or that Tennessee had a severe ant problem and had to shutdown their football program for the season or that Auburn returned to its home planet.

But real life doesn’t work that way and those losses are a part of who this team was and I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t cover them. If you need a shot of liquor right now, I understand and I’ll wait and let you get that.

Back? Feel better? No? Me either.

And I re-watched both of these games this week, so how do you think I feel?

October 13, 2001. This was one of those games that Florida had no business losing. The Gators were ranked second in the country. Auburn was unranked and had gotten blown out by Florida twice in 2000, including the SEC Championship Game. (In another one of my favorite moments of Rex Grossman’s career, he said Florida’s scout team defense was better than Auburn’s first team defense after their first meeting that year. He was just a redshirt freshman making his second start and said that. You can’t ascend to legend status much quicker than that.)

But this night in Auburn, everything was tilted in the Tigers’ favor. First, the ankle injury that Graham suffered against LSU was one week old, and would keep him out of this game. Second, there was a storm blowing into the area, which created lots of wind gusts and played havoc with Florida’s deep passing game.

Right off the bat, things weren’t looking good. And that was before Auburn Jesus entered the picture.

Grossman would go on to throw four interceptions. (The last one came in the final five minutes when he put his “Fuck it, I’m going deep” lifestyle on full display by rolling to his right to avoid the pass rush, then uncorking a deep ball; because of the wind and his foot slipping, out came a wobbly pass that fell nearly 10 yards short of the intended receiver.) Without Graham, the Gators ran the ball 18 times for a paltry 36 yards. In all, Florida committed five turnovers — the non-pick came late in the third quarter on a bad snap that was rolled on the ground on a punt attempt, setting Auburn up with beautiful field position at Florida’s 2.

All of these miscues let an inferior Auburn hang around and win the game on a Damon Duval 44-yard field goal with :10 remaining. Auburn comes for us all.

December 1, 2001. Florida would have beat Tennessee and played for the national title if the September 11th attacks hadn’t happened. Florida was better than Tennessee in September, especially with John Henderson hurt, and would have won that game had it been played as scheduled in September.

There, I said it. I don’t like saying it, but it’s the truth.

Instead, this game was moved to December. After the loss to Auburn, Florida worked its way back up to No. 2 in the country again. Tennessee, which rallied from an early-season loss to Georgia and got its offense in gear late in the year, was ranked No. 4 — but had not beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1971.

I remember being so confident Florida would win this game — and then Travis Stephens happened.

From 1997 to 2001, Tennessee had Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, and Travis Stephens at running back. These three did a lot of damage to not only Florida, but the entire SEC. But besides the fact that Florida blew its chances at the SEC and BCS titles in this game, what makes Travis Stephens rushing for 226 yards on 19 carries so damn aggravating is that he was by some margin the smallest and least talented of those three backs, yet Florida’s defense could not prevent Tennessee’s line from opening massive holes to spring him into the secondary where they could not wrap him up.

Before I rewatched this game, I thought maybe Florida’s rush defense was a weakness that year and I just didn’t remember that. So, I went and looked it up: Nope! They were ranked sixth in the nation in rush defense before this game. After, they dropped to 12th.

I also thought, Well, maybe Tennessee was just really good running the ball that year. No again! The Vols were 57th, lower than they had been for the past few years with better running backs.

If this makes you annoyed all over again, good, because I’m with you.

The only good news is that the Gators didn’t beat themselves with turnovers in this game. A Grossman interception in the first half was it for turnovers, and they forced three of their own. The bad news, besides Stephens, is they were once again without Graham, this time due to FSU’s Darnell Dockett purposely twisting Graham’s injured ankle two weeks prior. (I want to point out again that FSU lost that game 37-13. They also lost 52-20 in 1996. And if you’d like more recent scores, well, 41-14 in 2018 and 40-17 in 2019, but I digress.)

Like the Auburn game, without Graham, Florida was unable to run the ball on Tennessee’s stout run defense that was tops in the SEC. The Vols defensive line featured two future NFL big boys in Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson. As a whole, they made Florida’s offensive line miserable in ways most teams hadn’t by getting pressure on Grossman and suffocating the run all game long. The Gators failed to average two yards per carry.

And by no means was this a bad offensive line. Pearson was an All-American, Zac Zedalis was All-SEC, and Shannon Snell, Thomas Moody, and Max Starks were all very solid. But sometimes you just run into two massive defensive lineman who are able to destroy double teams and eat you for lunch. It happens — and unfortunately, it happened a lot in this game.

The end result, a 34-32 Tennessee win, is about as painful a loss as Florida’s ever sustained.

But after torching Maryland, Florida finished the year 10-2. Despite all the turnovers, penalties, and Travis Stephens rushing yards, the Gators’ two losses were by a combined five points. Oh, what could have been had they had a healthy Graham, or not turned the ball over so much on the plains, or slowed Tennessee’s run game in some way...

The end of the 2001 regular season was a wild one. After Florida lost to Tennessee, the Vols were in the driver’s seat to play for the national title, but they lost to LSU in the SEC Championship. Undefeated Nebraska lost its last regular season game to Colorado, and by an ugly 62-36 score. One-loss Texas had a shot, but also lost to Colorado in the Big 12 Championship. Miami was the only undefeated team left, but barely: They escaped Blacksburg, Virginia with a 26-24 win over Michael Vick’s Virginia Tech team on the final day of the regular season.

The best cases to play the Hurricanes that year belonged to one-loss Nebraska, one-loss Oregon, and two-loss Florida. There’s no doubt in my mind that Florida was the second-best team in the country that year and the only team that could have competed with Miami for the title. Instead, the BCS selected Nebraska — a no-brainer, really, because I know when I watch a team get their doors blown off and give up 62 points, I immediately think they can compete with one of the most talent-rich teams in history.

It would have been controversial to put Florida in, but if the committee had chosen to go that route, the Gators would have had a strong case — even without an SEC title, or 11 wins, Florida had put together one of the year’s most impressive campaigns. And I’m not saying Florida would have beaten Miami — just that it would have been a little bit better game than what we got.

Of course, just like a sophomore winning the Heisman, the precedent of a two-loss team getting into the BCS title game was also set in 2007, when LSU — which made its bones that year on beating defending national champion Florida and Heisman winner-to-be Tebow — became the first to do so, going on to win the title.

These things intersect.

A couple days after the Orange Bowl, I woke up and went to go get a haircut. When I returned home, the TV was on. This was odd: I always turn the TV off when I leave the house. I guess I either forgot this time or it turned itself back on because it knew I would have an interest in what was unfolding. There on my screen as I walked in was the news that Steve Spurrier would be resigning as head coach of the Florida Gators.

It took me a moment to process what w as happening. For a second, I thought I was reading it wrong, or that it was a joke.

But it was real — and man, did it hurt to know my football dad was leaving.

In the wake of Spurrier’s resignation, a lot of people, media included, said he left because he was tired of recruiting, parents, and immature players. That he seemed different that year. That you could see it on his face and body language.

I don’t know if any of that was true.

My opinion is that he accomplished everything he wanted to at Florida, was ready for a new challenge and that was the best time to get out. If he wanted to leave on a high note, he couldn’t have picked a better team to hit it with; if he wanted to leave a foundation, he had poured it. He left his successor a Heisman-worthy quarterback and the remnants of two highly-ranked recruiting classes.

He certainly didn’t know Jeremy Foley would hire Ron Zook, who would let all that decay.

(Spurrier’s departure does make the Orange Bowl a little bit funnier to me, in retrospect. He benched Grossman, gave Berlin his shot on a big stage, got impatient with the results and put Grossman in — possibly because he wanted an easy, blowout win in what he knew would be his final game at Florida. No one has ever been better at controlling their job fate than Steve Spurrier. He likes to say he’s never been fired as a head coach — only taken a new job, resigned, or been left behind as the league folded. That’s how you do it if you’ve got the leverage.)

The 2001 Florida Gators didn’t win a national title, an SEC title, or even their own division. But they were a glorious, imperfect wrecking ball that smashed all the abandoned and unwanted buildings in town — and, hey, sometimes the ball would detach and take out an orphanage, but hey, they’d get that sucker reattached and go back to smashing. It’s disappointing that they emerged from this season with no hardware, and if you watched this team at their peak without watching the losses, your brain would probably break trying to figure how that could happen — but, again, the ball swung wildly.

But if our teams winning titles is the only thing that can make us happy as a fan, then we’re setting ourselves up to be miserable — hell, if that’s the case, why bother watching at all? College football, more than any other sport, is designed in a way that only the same handful of teams each year have a real shot at a title. If you’re not on or rooting for one of those teams, you better be prepared to just enjoy the ride and find the things that make you happy.

Thankfully, college football is also designed in a way that allows for a good amount of chaos and entertainment. That’s why we keep coming back, or at least it’s why I keep coming back. It’s easy for me to say I appreciate the 2001 team considering Florida is one of the haves in the sport with three national titles.

But even if those titles didn’t exist, I’d still love this team.

It didn’t need a crown to reign.