Florida’s epic flop in the College World Series this year was certainly frustrating and disappointing. It wasn’t as painful as last year’s final two losses in the championship series to South Carolina from a sheer heartbreak angle. It always hurts more the closer you are to the biggest prize and the Gators didn’t get a single win in Omaha this year as opposed to being an out and a game away from the national championship last year. But because of this Gator baseball team’s expectations, rightfully sky high given the talent level, it got me thinking where they would rank on the list of the best Gators teams to never win the national title and therefore the most disappointing.
This won’t be a recap of the most heartbreaking losses in Gator history. I was actually working on that column last year after the previously mentioned 2011 CWS debacle but it was too painful to relieve those moments. Surely you could add the past two Florida basketball NCAA Tournament losses. But none of those teams will make this list because I don’t feel they were the most talented teams not to win, although I gave long thought to both hoops squads and almost put this year’s team in the top 10.
There will be limitations with my list and longtime fans will surely be able to point to some great teams from the 1970s and earlier that I missed. But as I’ve stated before, my Gator fan reach goes back through the 90s with some much vaguer recollections of the football teams in the 80s. I also don’t have the encyclopaedic knowledge nor the time to research many of the smaller sports. Plus, the interest in those sports isn’t as high and therefore the collective heartache of their defeats not as great. That said, there were three teams I felt were good enough to include. The rest of the list is obviously football heavy.
10 – 1992 Women’s Volleyball
34-2, 14-0 (SEC), lost to UCLA in Final Four
This was my freshman year in Gainesville. I had spent the previous summer playing volleyball five hours a day on the sands of Lake Worth Beach but to call me a volleyball fan or expert would be a lie. That said, I remember following along in the Alligator as Mary Wise, in her second season at the helm, put Florida volleyball on the map. Gudi Staub was a terror and led this team to the first Final Four in school history.
9 – 2009 Women’s Softball
63-5, 26-1 (SEC), lost to Washington in College World Series championship round
This is probably the best softball team in school history. They stormed through the regular season with only three defeats (only one in the SEC), then blew into the championship round at the Women’s College World Series only to lose two straight to Washington, including a nail-biting final game.
8 – 2003 Women’s Volleyball
36-2, 16-0 (SEC), lost to USC in national title match
After six Final Fours in 12 seasons, Wise’s bunch, led by Aury Cruz, finally made the championship match. This was their first NC for the taking. After winning the first set, they then dropped the next three to Southern Cal and fell short. I was living in L.A. by this time and working with some USC volleyball fans, a bitter pill to swallow.
7 – 2001 Football
10-2, 6-2 (SEC), lost to Tennessee in regular season finale
The first of two football teams on this list that didn’t advance to a championship game. The 2001 Gators were on the precipice but couldn’t finish the deal. Because of 9/11, the Tennessee game was postponed and rescheduled for the first week of December. Florida was a double-digit favorite in the Swamp behind Rex Grossman and three dynamic receiving threats, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Taylor Jacobs. The defense was loaded as well with Alex Brown, Andra Davis and a strong secondary of Lito Sheppard, Keiwan Ratliff, Marquand Manuel and Todd Johnson. Florida, despite a stunning last-second loss at Auburn, was the best team in the SEC. Their six league wins were by an average of 37 points. They hadn’t given up more 17 points in any game outside of that Auburn loss. They were primed to beat Tennessee, advance to face LSU in the SEC Championship Game and then earn a spot in the Rose Bowl against Miami for the national title. But everything collapsed in a stampede by Travis Stephens. Grossman’s two-point conversation to tie it in the final minute hit the turf and Casey Clausen climbed a ladder and lead the Vols band in the worst rendition of Rocky Top ever performed, one of the all-time humiliating moments at Florida Field.
6 – 1998 Baseball
46-18, 21-8 (SEC), lost to Southern Cal in College World Series
#1 seed goes two-and-out at the College World Series. Sound familiar? The ’98 baseball squad was known for its prolific offense and its comebacks. At the time, this team set all kinds of school records for home runs and wins. Seven guys had at least 12 home runs. In the regional final with a CWS berth on the line, the Gators played Illinois in what is still the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever attended. Florida rallied three different times, including the final walk-off, to advance to Omaha. But the Gators collapsed in Omaha, perhaps spent from the drama of the regional. Still this was a great team, anchored by the best baseball player in school history, Brad Wilkerson (sorry Mike Zunino). In addition, three other members of the team went on to long pro careers, including two who are still active – David Ross and Mark Ellis. Those guys and this team will always hold a special place in my heart since I worked in the Sports Information office and kept stats in the press box for home games.
5 – 1984 Football
9-1-1, 5-0-1 (SEC)
There is little doubt this was probably the best Florida football team BS (Before Spurrier). But the corruption of the Charley Pell era caught up with the program and denied the ’84 bunch a chance at greatness before they could show how good they were. Still, once Galen Hall took over after the 1-1-1 start, they never lost again. Freshman walk-on QB Kerwin Bell came out of nowhere to team with Ricky Nattiel and the dynamic backfield of John L. Williams and Neal Anderson for a potent offense. The Gators never lost in SEC play and clinched the school’s first SEC title with an ugly road win at Kentucky. For long-time fans that had never thought they’d see the day, it was perhaps the single most important win in Florida history. Of course, the SEC revoked the championship due to sanctions under Pell’s watch. That prevented Florida from a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Given the national title was awarded to BYU that season, there is little doubt Florida would have been the top team in the land if given the chance.
4 – 2000 Men’s Basketball
29-8, 12-4 (SEC), lost to Michigan State in national championship game
Billy Donovan had been building something in Gainesville for a few years. Coming off a crushing loss to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen, we hoped Florida was poised for bigger things. The dynamic freshman class from ’98-99 were sophomores now. Adding super recruit Donnell Harvey to the mix with Brett Nelson, Teddy Dupay, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and senior leaders Brent Wright and Kenyan Weaks gave Florida a strong two-deep roster. The Gators claimed a share of the SEC regular season title and earned a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Thoughts of this team being under-seeded were challenged in the first game against Butler. It took a miracle drive and layup from Miller for the Gators to advance. But once they did, they really found their groove, rifling through traditional powers Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State and North Carolina on their way to the national title game. As you remember, the Gators weren’t much of a challenge for a strong, senior-led Michigan State team. The anti-climactic game meant this wasn’t a heartbreaker in the traditional sense but it hurt to watch a very talented team gel together only to fall short at the finish.
3 – 2012 Baseball
47-20, 18-12 (SEC), lost to Kent State in College World Series
After 2011’s oh-so-close squad returned virtually intact, every college baseball expert and fan agreed that Florida was the team to beat in 2012. Few teams in any sport have ever lived up to such gigantic expectations (see #2 next up on the list) and unfortunately, this team was no different. The talent was verified when nine players were selected in this year’s MLB draft. They flashed brilliance early in the season, looking every bit like the best team in the country and one of the best in recent college baseball history. But they struggled at various times throughout the regular season until rallying in the NCAA Tournament and breezing back to Omaha, back on top as the #1 seed. Despite the top seed, a rough draw with defending two-time champion South Carolina first up derailed any dreams of the first baseball national title. As bad as Florida played in two games at the CWS, it wouldn’t have mattered who they played. It was a stunning display of poor fielding, poor situational hitting, poor coaching decision and bad luck. Luckily for this bunch, there are two Gators teams that played worse on the big stage so they only clock in at #3.
2 – 2009 Football
13-1, 8-1 (SEC), lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game
I can see the argument that this was the most talented team in University of Florida history not to win the national championship. But it is still too early for me to make that claim. Let me see how they stack up after a few years reflection to my number one choice. But the fact that they are on the list at all is a painful reminder of a still fresh wound. This was supposed to be the crowning of the greatest team in Gators history and the culmination of a dynasty that would remembered with the legendary runs in college football history. A third national title in four years. The first undefeated season in school history. The crown upon the head of the greatest college football player ever. In the midst of it, we never saw the end coming. Sure, these 2009 Gators were not juggernauts. They played close games against LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina. They battled their share of ups and downs. But by the time they arrived in Atlanta, they had won 22 straight and were five-point favorites over Alabama. We know what happened, we know the tears, I’ve written about how it could have turned out differently. But all the hopes and dreams collapsed on that December night in the Georgia Dome and a team with historic expectations finally fell under the burden of those dreams.
1 – 1995 Football
12-1, 8-0 (SEC), lost to Nebraska in Fiesta Bowl
All roads since Spurrier’s arrival in 1990 led to this game. He had built the program into a powerhouse and brought it to the precipice of becoming the greatest college football program in the country. This team captured a third straight SEC title and fourth in five years in perhaps the most dominating fashion ever. For those of you who don’t remember or were too young, this team was a machine. Their closest margin of victory was 11 points at Auburn and against Florida State, a game after which University Ave. exploded into one huge party (with unfortunate after effects involving me, the old Krystal parking lot and a night in the county lockup… ahh, the wilds of youth). They hung 62 on Tennessee, including 48 straight (and don’t forget the defense, giving us one of the greatest hits in Gators history from Lawrence Wright). They put up 63 on South Carolina. And no one in attendance (yours truly included) will forget the 52 in Athens when Spurrier wanted to “hang half-a-hundred” because no one had ever done it there before and had backup QB Eric Kresser throwing darts in the final minutes. Danny Wuerffel’s breakout season coupled with the emergence of former walk-on Chris Doering and Ike Hilliard as All-SEC receivers put together the Fun N’ Gun’s greatest season. The defense wasn’t great but they only gave up more than 24 twice. So when the Fiesta Bowl rolled around, the Gators were given a pretty good shot at claiming the first national title in school history, despite the fact they were 3-point underdogs to the defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers. And for all of Wuerffel’s greatness, Tommie Frazier was actually the more decorated QB in the matchup, finishing second to Wuerffel’s third in the Heisman voting. Florida actually led 10-6 after the first quarter but of course the rest is well documented by the many “Tommie Frazier just scored again” and “How many Gators does it take to tackle Tommie Frazier” jokes. After a dominating season by a team that featured some of the greatest football players in Gators history (25 of which went on to play in the NFL), this game has to rank as the ultimate devastator.
That’s my top 10. What’s yours? What did I miss? Hit me up on Twitter, leave comments below, nothing like a good summertime sports debate. Here’s hoping we go a few years without needing to update this post.