Florida completed its winning roll to no place today, winning its ninth straight by beating backyard rival Florida State, 27-17, before 58,930 rain-soaked fans at Doak Campbell Stadium. The third-ranked Gators came into the game burdened with the grim reality that there was no true substitute for a berth in the Sugar Bowl, but played valiantly nonetheless.
The victory did give the Gators a remarkable 9-1-1 record and, better yet, a legitimate claim to the national title. Twelfth-ranked Florida State, which will play Georgia in the Florida Citrus Bowl, lost what many of its fans were calling the Pro-Am Bowl, and finished its regular season at 7-3-1.
"The whole season showed the character and the poise that this team is made of," Florida Coach Galen Hall said. "It's a great football team and I'm going to make the statement now that I truly think: With the schedule we've played this year, we're the best football team in the nation."
The Southeastern Conference banned the Gators from postseason play while they appeal an impending NCAA probation for irregularities. Florida claimed the SEC title -- its first in 52 years -- on Nov. 17, and this assured it of the first top-five finish in the history of the school.
If Brigham Young loses to Michigan in the Holiday Bowl and Oklahoma falters against Washington in the Orange, this victory might have some bearing on the national championship. Florida, 8-0 under Hall, could claim the title without having played in a postseason game.
"What happens in the bowls," Hall said with a most certain note of finality, "happens in the bowls. I think this team deserves the top ranking."
Hall was not the only coach talking of national titles after the game. "Florida is the best team we've played this year," the Seminoles' Bobby Bowden said. "And they're probably the best team in the country."
For the most part, the second half seemed to be a mere struggle in abstractions -- it seemed not to matter. Bobby Raymond's second field goal of the game covered 26 yards and came with 6:32 left to play, pushing Florida's lead to 27-10.
That score was followed by an eight-yard touchdown pass from Eric Thomas, the Seminoles' reserve quarterback, to tight end Pat Carter. It completed an 81-yard, 12-play drive that lessened Florida State's misery. There was just over a minute remaining when Derek Schmidt kicked the extra point and made it 27-17, a relatively close score compared to Florida's 53-14 victory last year.
The play of both teams was affected by a rainstorm of incredible strength. Throughout the first half, heaven emptied its sizeable belly in hard white sheets and made a slick, mirror-like puddle of the grass field. It was nearly miraculous that either team could mount an offense.
"I would not have picked a rainy, muddy night to have a chance to beat them," Bowden said. "They remind me of that Pitt team a couple of years ago. The wet field neutralized our speed."
Speed had nothing to do with many of the Seminoles' foibles. On one sweep, starting quarterback Kirk Coker threw a wild pitchout through the hands of tailback Roosevelt Snipes, linebacker Mark Korff recovering the dribble at the Florida State 48.
Kerwin Bell, the Gators' quarterback who completed five of 14 passes for 71 yards, got his first of two touchdown passes with 12:08 to play in the first quarter. The redshirted freshman, ranked third nationally in passing efficiency, found Frankie Neal on a slant-in and hit him in full stride. The play went 33 yards. With Raymond good on the extra point, it was 7-0.
The Seminoles appeared certain to score later that quarter, after driving from their three down to Florida's two. But Coker, on first and goal, fumbled the center snap and Tommy Duhart, the Gators' left tackle, recovered at the six.
That ignominious end to the Seminoles' best-possible effort settled a matter of immense pride for Florida's defenders: they had given up only one first-quarter touchdown this season.
"I thought our defense played well all day," Hall said. "Any time you hold Florida State to 17 points, you know it's a great defensive football game."
Schmidt kicked a 23-yard field goal with 7:42 left in the first half and it was 7-3, but Florida State never got closer. A bit vengeful, Florida struck quickly its next possession, Neal Anderson carrying a first-down pitchout 62 yards to the 16. Bell's second touchdown pass came shortly thereafter, this one a five-yarder to John L. Williams, unguarded near the left corner. Raymond's extra point made it 14-3 with 5:44 left in the second period.
After an offensive pass interference penalty nullified an apparent Florida touchdown, Raymond kicked a 33-yard field goal with five seconds left in the half, giving the Gators a 17-3 lead.
Each team got a touchdowns in the third quarter, Florida scoring first on Lorenzo Hampton's eight-yard run at 11:23 that pushed the advantage to 21 points, and Florida State countering with Coker's 12-yard pass to Jesse Hester at 6:33.
Hall probably said more than he'd planned when he offered, "It's a great tribute to them that it was this tough a football game."
Bowden said, "Now I've got to make those speeches in the spring and everybody'll ask why we lost to the Gators again. That's the toughest part, having to face that every year. I think I'll cancel."