Coach Steve Spurrier's team entered the national championship game with a 12-0 record plus a swagger that no one could slow the Gators’ passing attack, including the defending national champions (Nebraska Cornhuskers). By halftime, however, the game was over as the Cornhuskers rolled to a 35-10 lead. It wasn't shocking Nebraska won the championship matchup, but very few expected an outcome of 62-24.
Nebraska defensive end Jason Peter summed up the thrashing in the Fiesta Bowl. “We physically out-muscled them,” he said. "We beat them down. We beat everybody down. We’re the best-conditioned team in the country.”
Spurrier agreed with the player’s assesment of the championship game. “Nebraska is just way better than us, that's all you can say,” the dejected coach admitted moments after the game. “They just clobbered us. They out-coached us, they out-played us and they are by far the best team we have played in my six years at Florida.”
Steve Spurrier is shown in action coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Up to that point of his tenure at Florida the setback to the Cornhuskers was Spurrier’s most disappointing loss, especially when you consider the magnitude of the game. However, like all great coaches, Spurrier utilized this experience to redefine his future teams.
During the subsequent offseason Florida hired Bob Stoops away from Kansas State as its new defensive coordinator. As dominating as his offenses were from 1990-1995, Spurrier realized he needed a quality defense to win the national championship. The coach would later comment that he changed his approach to conditioning in order to field a more physical team. That is exactly what happened as the Gators won the 1996 national championship with a 52-20 victory over Florida State.
Fast-forward 17 years and we witnessed Gus Malzahn’s first Auburn team steamroll through the 2013 regular season with the No. 1 rushing offense in the country. The Tigers averaged 40 points and 505 yards per game going into their national championship showdown against Florida State.
Though they were not undefeated, the Tigers did compile a 12-1 record and captured the SEC Championship just like the 1995 Florida Gators did. Auburn's loss to Florida State in the national championship game was far more competitive than Florida's humiliating loss to Nebraska. The last minute setback to the Seminoles persuaded Malzahn to keep his defensive staff intact for 2014.
It took a disappointing 8-5 finish during 2014 for Malzahn to finally pull the plug on Ellis Johnson as his defensive coordinator after Auburn allowed more than 500 yards and 42 points per game during its five losses.
Like Spurrier, Malzahn managed to make one of the biggest splash hires by bringing Will Muschamp back to Auburn as defensive coordinator. In 1996 Spurrier gave full control of his defense to Stoops, one of the brightest defensive minds in college football. Malzahn has done the same thing with Muschamp, hoping to obtain the same results. Just like Spurrier, Malzahn realizes a flashy coordinator hire won't be enough to reach his ultimate goal.
Auburn has made changes to the coaching staff as well as the players’ approach to conditioning and preparation for the 2015 season. Malzahn wants his teams to be physical and relentless on both sides of the football. The head coach has made it clear he will be more demanding of his players moving forward.
Winning a national championship will be more challenging for the Auburn Tigers in 2015 than it was for Spurrier’s 1996 Gators. The competition is greater in the Southeastern Conference than it was 18 years ago. Auburn will fundamentally have to win two major bowl games in one year to capture a national title. Malzahn's philosophy and approach to the 2015 season will mirror's Spurrier's approach in 1996, but there will be more obstacles to overcome.
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