NEW ORLEANS - Steve Spurrier was too grateful to gloat. On the occasion of his first national championship, the headstrong head football coach at the University of Florida was oddly humbled.
''God gave us a mulligan,'' Spurrier said on the morning after a stunning Sugar Bowl. ''We're not here unless Texas beats Nebraska ... We're not here unless Ohio State beats Arizona State. I need to send Coach (John) Mackovic and Coach (John) Cooper the same kind of ring that we get.''
The final polls suggested a tidy conclusion to the college football season. Florida finished No. 1 in all the season-ending elections, and left little room for debate with a 52-20 stomping of unbeaten Florida State.
Yet because they had lost to Florida State during the regular season, the Gators' title hopes hinged on an improbable three-game
parlay paying off.
Were it not for Texas' upset of Nebraska in the Big 12 Conference championship, Florida would not have rated a rematch with Florida State. Were it not for Ohio State's closing rush in the Rose Bowl, Arizona State would have finished 12-0 and closed Florida out of the title picture.
Maybe facing Florida State would have been sufficient motivation for Florida, but a second chance at a national championship was a considerably larger carrot. Ultimately, the Gators were more interested in redemption than revenge.
It was fate
''You don't want those guys walking around with a national championship ring on their fingers on our account,'' Florida linebacker James Bates said of Florida State. ''We would have been fired up (to play spoiler), but it probably would have been a little closer to game time when we were really, really buzzing.''
''I don't think we've even let down now from when Ohio State scored on that little out route,'' Bates said Friday morning.
Florida changed hotels on the eve of the Sugar Bowl, and arrived at its new quarters with roughly six minutes left to play in Pasadena. The players hustled to their rooms just in time to see the Sun Devils take the lead. After the Buckeyes came back in the closing seconds, the Gators spilled gleefully into the hallways of their Holiday Inn, laughing, shouting, galvanized.
''God told us right there,'' said Florida cornerback Anthone Lott, ''that this national championship was ours for the taking.''
Once reprieved, the Gators were relentless.
Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel threw three touchdown passes to Ike Hilliard, ran for a fourth, and spent the fourth period perfecting his handoffs. With uncharacteristic restraint, Spurrier ordered only one pass in the final 15 minutes of play.
There was no point in padding the scoreboard at that stage. Any voter who failed to see Florida's supremacy by then was beyond persuasion.
Spurrier says he would still prefer a 16-team playoff to the bowl alliance, which provides a framework for a legitimate national championship game, but no guarantee of getting it.
OSU really has no beef
A playoff remains problematical, but it would be infinitely more equitable than the present system. As it stands, five schools all finished with comparable claims to a national championship. Arizona State, Brigham Young, Florida, Florida State and Ohio State all ended the season with one loss.
Choosing among them requires a voter to assess style points: margin of victory, quality of opposition, quotability of coach. This tends to be an imprecise process. The Gators achieved a consensus by trampling the top-ranked Seminoles.
A closer game could have resulted in a split decision - Florida atop one poll; Ohio State another.
Still, John Cooper has no cause for complaint. His Buckeyes won the Rose Bowl dramatically, but not dominantly. Besides, Spurrier has promised to reward him for his contribution to the Florida cause.
''I think we've got plenty of money,'' Spurrier said. ''What did the bowl pay out, $8.7 million?''
If it's all the same to Spurrier, Ohio State fans might prefer another form of inducement. Maybe a game plan for Michigan.