Of the three big Florida powerhouses, Florida was the most accomplished in 1976. However, they had never won the SEC championship in football and that wouldn’t change until a former Heisman winning quarterback by the name of Steve Spurrier would come along much later.
Doug Dickey was coaching the Gators in those days, after they had stolen him away from the Tennessee Volunteers. They were a Wishbone team like much of the nation was in those days and they were a solid football team.
The previous season, 1975, the Gators came dangerously close to winning the SEC for the first time.
They lost to their chief rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs, on a trick play. Appleby to Washington worked for 80 yards and a win for the Bulldogs knocking Florida out of first place and awarding the title to Alabama.
Georgia’s Vince Dooley was about as conservative as they came and the trick play caught Florida off guard. Tight end Richard Appleby took a handoff on a reverse and then he hit wide receiver Gene Washington and then he took it 80 yards for a touchdown to win the game.
The 1976 season was a different story. The 18th ranked Gators lost their opener against a good North Carolina team coached by Vince Dooley’s brother, Bill Dooley.
But, they quickly bounced back and crushed Houston the following game. The Houston Cougars had just joined the SWC and they won the conference championship in their first season with a down Arkansas and Texas.
They beat Mississippi State and then 11th ranked LSU.
The Florida State Seminoles were up next for the Gators and Florida always had a little something extra for the Noles. Florida was coming in ranked 12th and Florida State was 2-3 with brand new coach Bobby Bowden. Florida did prevail, 33-26, but the Seminoles played their best game of the year, so far.
Florida barely survived a game against the Tennessee Vols and then the following week, they won a close one against Auburn.
Next on the Gator’s schedule was Georgia. These two don’t like each other much, either, and their game in Jacksonville is called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Just like 1975’s game had a special name for it, so did this game. The Gators were winning and dominating the game, basically, with a 27-13 halftime lead. Georgia scored to cut the lead to only 7, 27-20. On the following drive, the Gators had a 4th and 1 from they own 29. For some odd reason, maybe he panicked, Florida coach Doug Dickey decided to go for it instead of being smart and punting. The Gators were stopped short which gave the Bulldogs the ball inside the Florida 30 yard line.
The Bulldogs gained the momentum and scored three touchdowns to take a 41-27 victory and the SEC championship.
This game is now called Fourth and Dumb, because it was such a bad call and this deserves it’s own post.
The Gators lost to a surprisingly good Kentucky to drop to 6-3 on the season. The record improved with lowly Rice next on the schedule and the Gators chomped them up to move to 7-3.
The much hated Miami Hurricanes were next up.
The Canes were really bad before Howard Schnellenberger turned them around and this season they
came in with a 3-6 record. But, it’s a rivalry game and the Canes played the Gators tough. Florida prevailed winning, 19-10, and going to 2-0 against the Canes and the Noles.
Florida accepted an invitation to the Sun Bowl where they were thumped by the Texas A%M Aggies to finish their season with an 8-4 record.
Of the three big Florida schools, the Gators held the advantage. But, that would not last long with the arrival of Bobby Bowden at Florida State and later with Howard Schnellenberger at Miami.
There were good times ahead for Florida, also. But, it would be a little bit longer than their chief rivals.
1976 was also just barely beyond the days of segregation and these southern schools were just now starting to grab talent from their own state. Florida had one player on the All American team that season in Wes Chandler. In the future, Florida and their rivals Florida State and Miami would be loaded with talent much like Wes Chandler and most of it from the state of Florida.
The future would be bright, very bright.