Steve Spurrier played in the Auburn-Florida game, smack dab in the middle of the once-annual rivalry between the two schools. But ask him about Auburn, and those memories from the 1960s are not the first that come to mind.
“Do you want to talk about ’93 or ’94?” he asks.
There have been plenty of great games and great moments between the two programs, and both 1993 and 1994 rank among the most unforgettable. On the Auburn side, they mark the celebration of two incredible upsets by a program on probation. On the Florida side, they still elicit bitter, raw emotions, all these years later, two games they never should have let slip away.
“It’s been 25 years but, man, what I wouldn’t give to go back in time and erase that memory and right that wrong. Because it was wrong,” former Florida great Kevin Carter said.
That the game between No. 7 Auburn and No. 10 Florida on Saturday marks the first time Gus Malzahn has visited the Swamp in his seven seasons as head coach is an injustice to the SEC scheduling model that has come under fire in recent years.
Especially given the history between these two programs.
Twenty-five years ago, Auburn and Florida played perhaps the most memorable game in their series, and to understand why so much went into the 1994 game, we first need to look back at 1993. Florida was rolling with the Fun ‘N’ Gun offense under Spurrier, and went into Jordan-Hare Stadium ranked No. 4. No. 19 Auburn, undefeated but on probation, was given little chance to win.
Unless you were in the stadium, you could not watch the game. Auburn served a television ban as part of its NCAA penalties over charges that a former player received money from coaches and boosters. With a sold-out crowd and thousands of others outside the stadium tailgating and listening on the radio, it was hard to hear much of anything that day.
Florida jumped out to a 10-0 quick lead, as expected, and was driving in for another score to go up 17-0. But quarterback Danny Wuerffel misread the signal from Spurrier. “Only two times he ever did that. Both times it happened against Auburn,” Spurrier said. Calvin Jackson returned the errant pass 96 yards for a touchdown.
“The place was vibrating,” former Florida wide receiver Chris Doering said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a stadium that was as loud as that was.”
Still, Florida led 27-14 at halftime. In the locker room, then Auburn assistant Jimbo Fisher turned to quarterback Stan White and said, “I hope your arm is loose because we’re about ready to let it loose.” Auburn decided to beat the high-flying Gators, the Tigers would have to pitch it around themselves. White threw for nearly 300 yards and Auburn won 38-35.
“That was the game that vaulted us,” White said. “We, as a team, collectively said if we beat these guys, we can win them all. That was the game that propelled us all the way through the season.”
On the other side of it, Carter said, “We walked out of there losing and I remember thinking, ‘How did we lose that game?'”
Auburn finished undefeated, though Florida would end up winning the SEC title. Heading into 1994, all Carter could think about was payback. Florida, ranked No. 1, was a heavy favorite once again.
But No. 6 Auburn had other ideas. Receiver Frank Sanders, who grew up in South Florida, took the game personally. So did the other players on the team from the state of Florida. Wrap in another year of probation and the motivation to try to go undefeated again. Add in the coaching rivalry between Spurrier and the Bowden family, with youngest son Terry coming to town as Auburn head coach, and you had the makings of a tension-filled game on both sides.
“We were 17-point underdogs playing against Coach Spurrier, one of the greatest coaches of all time, and Terry Bowden being an underdog coach, there’s so many stories inside a story that you look at it and you say we shouldn’t be beating Florida,” Sanders said. “But it’s another situation where we had guys wanting to put Auburn on the map.”
“I was on a bit of a personal vendetta,” Carter said. “The whole time [tackle] Willie Anderson and [tight end] Andy Fuller, they’re running their mouth. They’re talking the worst trash in the world and I’m telling them, ‘I’m going to kill both you guys. You can’t block me, don’t worry if you make it to the NFL, I’ll beat your ass there, too.'”
Tommy Bowden, who served under his brother as Auburn offensive coordinator, explained one of the biggest keys was the way Auburn kept max protection in on offense to slow down Florida’s athletic and physical defense. Terry Bowden told his team if running back Stephen Davis could get 100 yards and their tight ends caught every pass that came their way, they’d win.
But the game was in doubt until the end. With Florida leading 33-29 and 1:20 left, Wuerffel threw on third down, and Auburn safety Brian Robinson made the interception. Wuerffel (again) missed the signal.
Quarterback Patrick Nix marched Auburn down the field, and converted a key fourth down to keep the drive alive. Down to the Florida 8, Auburn coaches noticed a mismatch and decided to take advantage. They moved Sanders inside for a one-on-one matchup against Florida safety Michael Gilmore. It was no contest.
Nix lofted a jump ball for Sanders in the corner of the end zone with 30 seconds left. Sanders came down with it for the 36-33 win.
“It was the first time in the entire game that their defense called an all-out blitz to get pressure on the quarterback,” Sanders said. “Pat threw a floater and I caught it. Our game plan worked and it just was one of the best moments in Auburn’s history.”
Florida ended up with six turnovers. Davis had 113 yards rushing. The attendance of 85,562 was a record in the state of Florida at the time. Terry Bowden has called the victory one of his all-time favorites as a head coach.
“It was one of the rare times that Steve Spurrier was outcoached offensively,” Tommy Bowden said. “For Terry to go down there, a Bowden against a Spurrier, in the state of Florida, Bobby Bowden’s little son, Terry — there were other incentives that made it a big victory.”
Florida ended up winning the SEC title again, but the loss to Auburn combined with the infamous “Choke at Doak” against Florida State kept the Gators from the national championship conversation. “Coach Spurrier sees me and he mentions it sometimes still, that ’94 team should have won it all,” Carter says.
A few years later, two rookie offensive linemen from Nebraska approached Sanders in the Arizona Cardinals’ locker room to say thank you and show off their 1994 national championship rings. “They said no way we would have become No. 1 team in the country had you not beaten Florida,” Sanders recalled.
“That’s stuff you don’t think about. We just beat Florida, and two years from now some kids from Nebraska are going to say, ‘Thank you, man.'”
Between 1993 and 1996, when Florida won four SEC championships, the Gators dropped only two SEC games. Both to Auburn.
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Of course, the history between the two goes far deeper than the 1990s. The teams first started playing in 1912 and played annually between 1927-2002 save for three years during World War II. They have played 83 times; Florida has played only Georgia more often.
Florida was the first opponent to play in Auburn Stadium (now Jordan-Hare) in 1939, to a 7-7 tie. Spurrier never won there as a player. In fact, Florida would not win a game in that stadium until 1973.
Their games in the 1980s had big moments, too. The 1982 game featured a controversial onside kick that Florida recovered to preserve a win. The 1983 game featured 20-plus future NFL draft picks, from Bo Jackson to Wilber Marshall, Lionel James to Neal Anderson. In 1986, Kerwin Bell played through a knee injury to lead a come-from-behind upset over No. 5 Auburn.
“Don’t get me started on why Florida and Auburn haven’t played more times than they have,” White said.
The decision to reconfigure the SEC scheduling model after the 2002 season meant each team kept one permanent rival from the opposite division and rotated a second nondivision opponent. Because Auburn and Georgia had a longer history, that game stayed on the annual schedule. Auburn and Florida have played only three times since 2002, and Auburn has won all three.
Florida coach Dan Mullen recently raised the scheduling issue, saying he firmly believes SEC schools should play each other more.
“I think it’s an injustice for the kids,” Mullen said. “We should mix those games up and you should play more teams from the West and get the opportunity to play more SEC games.”
Former Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, who now works as executive associate athletics director for external affairs at Florida, said the scheduling discussion picked up momentum in his last years at Auburn as administrators asked themselves, “What’s the best student-athlete experience?”
Whether that means moving to nine conference games (for which Alabama coach Nick Saban is also an advocate) or configuring the schedule in a different way, nobody knows. “Auburn should be in the East and Missouri in the West. That would make the most sense, wouldn’t it?” Spurrier offers.
Reconfiguring divisions is not on the table, but something has to give with the current scheduling model. Until then, getting reacquainted with one of the great lost rivalry games will have to do.
And 25 years after his dad led the Tigers to an upset win over the Gators, perhaps Auburn quarterback Bo Nix will get his turn Saturday to enter his name into this storied history. After all, this could be his only chance.
Florida and Auburn won’t play again in the regular season until 2024.