LIVE OAK — Arguably the best team Mike Pittman coached at Suwannee High will face possibly the most talented Bulldogs team Pittman coached.
For John Palmer, the quarterback of the 1988 state champion Bulldogs — the top seed in the Best of the Suwannee Valley pick ‘em tournament — it’s as close of a matchup as one can imagine.
“That would be a good one,” said Palmer, whose brother-in-law, Frank Yanossy, played on the 1995 Suwannee team that is now standing in the 1988 Bulldogs’ way.
“Man, that would really be a game. That would be tough.”
The second of Suwannee’s four straight Class 3A state champions, the 1988 Bulldogs have an impressive resume. SHS scored 454 points that year — the second most in school history — while allowing just 11.8 points per game. Those Bulldogs dropped just one game — 18-15 at Leon — and weren’t seriously challenged in the playoffs.
Even when falling behind two scores early against Santa Fe in the second round, Suwannee wound up rolling to a 35-21 win.
But those Bulldogs didn’t have to see anything like their 1995 counterparts, either.
That ’95 SHS team went 10-2 and opened the year nationally ranked. The two losses both came to Bolles, a squad loaded with Division 1 talent.
Despite those two setbacks, those Bulldogs had talent that not even the 1988 team possessed. Namely, size. And an advantage in the backfield where Willie Gardner starred at quarterback and Tony Owens was a proven threat at running back.
“That would probably be the closest team to like us in ‘88,” Palmer said. “That ’95 team could do it all. They could run it, pass it, play defense, special teams. There were no weak spots.
“When Willie Gardner had the football and Suwannee had the football, you could never count them out.”
Yanossy added: “We had some talent on that team. You had a lot of speed and size. That’s a big difference from the ’88 team. Not to take anything away from the ’88 team, I grew up watching them and just remember, I was like, ‘Wow!’”
Granted, Palmer and the 1988 running back duo of Marcus Nelson and Terry Williams proved they weren’t slouches either. Palmer, in his first season as Suwannee’s starting quarterback, threw for 2,668 yards with 26 touchdowns. Nelson and Williams both rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
That production, though, wasn’t their alone.
“Our offensive line, that was the edge,” Palmer added. “When the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, you were not going to stop them. They were the best group that I had been around.”
But that stellar group that included Gantt Crouch, Matt McMillan, Conel Crockton and Tony Branch could have its hands full with a defense featuring 6-foot-5, 247-pound Thaddeus Bullard (who played at Florida and has gone on to professional wrestling fame as Titus O’Neil with WWE) on the defensive line and 6-3, 227-pound Andra Davis (who spent 10 years in the NFL after also playing at Florida) at linebacker. In 1995, Suwannee allowed just 10 points per game, and just shy of 7 points per game outside of the lopsided playoff loss to Bolles.
Who would win?
“I think if we had to go 1-on-1, I think the ’95 team had a better offensive and defensive line,” Yanossy said. “Just for size and speed and strength and everything else in between.
“It would have been a very good match to see.”
Offensively, in addition to Gardner and Owens, the 1995 Bulldogs also had talent at receiver with Palmer impressed by David Lee’s ability.
“It seemed like he never dropped the ball,” he said. “He was one of those great receivers like a Matt Frier. Not the 6-foot-2, 200-pound wide receiver that runs a 4.3, but just a great student of the game, could get open, great hands, ran great routes.”
But in the end, Palmer said the state champion Bulldogs would have an edge.
“I think we would come out on top in that one,” he said laughing, adding he may be a bit biased. “Naturally, I would have to go with my side on that one.
“It would be a close game…This would probably come down to an overtime game where maybe, I couldn’t even say a touchdown. I would say anywhere from one to three points.”
Yanossy, though, disagrees.
“In my opinion, ’95 had a little more talent and a little more speed,” he said.