KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The word filtered quickly through the hotel lobby here yesterday morning, spreading wide smiles and sighs of relief among University of Florida football fans.
"I'm so happy we don't have to play them again," one of them said.
The fan wasn't talking about Tennessee, which Florida had beaten Saturday, 35-29, for the fourth straight year. He was speaking of a team his beloved Gators had been embarrassed by last season, a team that finally got its comeuppance.
Nebraska's shocking 19-0 defeat at Arizona State on Saturday night had not only changed the faces of the Gators fans. It also dramatically changed the face of college football for the rest of the 1996 season.
It rearranged the rankings, with Florida leapfrogging from fourth to first, Florida State moving to No. 2 and two Big Ten teams, Penn State and Ohio State, to third and fourth, respectively. Notre Dame is lurking at No. 5.
Suddenly, the rest of the country's elite outside the Big Ten and Pac-10 are no longer playing for the right to meet the seemingly forever top-ranked Cornhuskers in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Suddenly, a number of games that seemed to be afterthoughts were being thrust into a different light, and the number of teams with a legitimate chance at a national championship had multiplied fivefold. Or more.
"It's like opening the door for a bunch of teams," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said yesterday from Tallahassee. "Here's the king going down and No. 2 getting beat. It's getting like the pros. Maybe nobody's going undefeated this year."
The victory by the now sixth-ranked Wildcats was one of the most surprising in recent memory, given that Nebraska hadn't lost a game since the 1994 Orange Bowl and a regular-season game since 1992. That's 26 straight and 35 straight, if you're counting.
It also was surprising in another regard: It came against a team that had surrendered 77 points to the Cornhuskers last year in Lincoln, Neb., and it came on the same field where Nebraska had destroyed Florida, 62-24, for the national championship last Jan. 2 at the Fiesta Bowl.
"It's nice to be No. 1 and we appreciate it, but it's not like I'd say we're the best team in the country," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gators last held that distinction in 1994. "I don't think anyone knows who it is for sure."
Who it's not is Tennessee, which dropped from second to ninth. Who it also isn't is Nebraska, which dropped to eighth and apparently out of the picture for an unprecedented third straight national championship.
"They just whipped us," said Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. "We didn't generate a good enough running game. We needed a big play but we just didn't convert."
Here's a look at the key regular-season games remaining:
Notre Dame at Ohio State, Saturday: The Irish could benefit the most from Nebraska's defeat, but it still needs to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus. Coming off an emotional, last-second win at Texas, and going up against a team that has averaged nearly 75 points in its two games, might be asking too much. But Notre Dame has had two close games -- it struggled to beat Vanderbilt in the opener -- so this one could go down to the wire.
Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 5: This is only the first of three games that could give a Big Ten team a chance at a national title, or the start of the league's Big Three knocking each other out of the competition.
Florida State at Miami, Oct. 12: On paper, this doesn't seem to be much of a game, considering how the Hurricanes' roster appears to be shrinking by the week. If second-year coach Butch Davis somehow can slow his team's attrition rate, as well as its arrest record, Miami might be tough in the Orange Bowl.
Penn State at Michigan, Nov. 16: This became must-see TV when the Wolverines shocked Colorado in Boulder last week. With the list of Big Ten contenders apparently reduced by one with Northwestern's abysmal performance at Wake Forest, the Nittany Lions have another chance at a national championship for Joe Paterno.
Florida at Florida State, Nov. 30: Even though their team led 35-0 in the first half Saturday, Gators fans at Neyland Stadium were sweating it out until the very end. Why? Because they remembered what happened two years ago in Tallahassee, when they saw a 28-0 lead over the host Seminoles frittered away in a 28-28 tie.
Pub Date: 9/23/96