A Dangerous, High Stakes Game For The Gators

Three months ago the idea that the Florida Gators would be facing a 6-5 Florida State team on the last weekend of the regular season seemed rather preposterous. Since the only place you can find more cupcakes than you’ll find on the FSU schedule is at your neighborhood bakery, preposterous is probably the best way to describe what has happened to the Seminoles this year.

Even with all the warning signs we’ve had since 2000 — the Seminoles have lost 25 times in this decade; Florida, on the other hand has lost only 21 times even with two coaching changes — nobody ever dreamed it would come to this for FSU. Why some of the nation’s top football writers thought the Seminoles could make it to the BCS title game with an unblemished record if they could simply beat Miami in the season opener. FSU did beat Miami, a signature win in just about any other season, but this isn’t any other season. Miami had to win its last game of the year to go 6-6 and the Seminoles are finishing up a season that includes a 30-0 pasting at the hands of Wake Forest in Tallahassee. A loss and the Seminoles have to win their bowl game to avoid the first losing season since 1976.

There was a time when you figured FSU was bowl eligible around midseason. That was then. This is now. Now, the Seminoles are bowl eligible because they struggled to beat Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference. Western Michigan is a perennial college football catfish, a true bottom feeder. The Broncos have made it all the way to eight wins exactly five times in school history. FSU, if you recall, went 14 straight years with at least 10 wins, a streak that ended after the 2000 season. Against the Seminoles last Saturday, Western Michigan didn’t look like a catfish and the Seminoles certainly didn’t look like a team that was only recently a record-setting winner.

This is a Florida State team that among other things has (1) an offensive line nicknamed “The Turnstiles”; (2) not much of a running game; (3) a passing game that relies on jump balls to a guy that looks like he should be playing small forward; (4) a quarterback controversy that has divided both the team and the Seminoles nation; (5) a legendary head coach that is steaming because his offensive coordinator, who just happens to be his son, has taken a booster buyout and resigned effective the end of the season; and (6) boosters that are actively and openly calling for the resignation of the coach that basically resurrected the FSU program from the dead 30 years ago.

The fourth-ranked Gators (10-1), meanwhile have a date with Arkansas in the SEC championship next Saturday and they have BCS bowl game and national championship aspirations. Even if some of Florida’s wins have been coyote ugly, the oddsmakers think the Gators are solid favorites when they face the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee Saturday at noon (ABC TV).

On paper this looks like a shooting fish in the barrel kind of game for the Gators but games aren’t played on paper. Line the Seminoles up across from the Gators and they don’t look anything like a 6-5 team. They look plenty big and very fast and if you check out that roster, there are a lot of familiar names — familiar because probably half the FSU roster was recruited by Florida. Both rosters are filled with kids that have played with or against each other since they were old enough to strap on a helmet for the first time. Familarity alone makes this a dangerous game. Nobody likes losing to a long-time rival much less an old buddy from the hood.

And just because the Seminoles can’t play for the ACC championship and the bowl game they’ll go to is far from the BCS radar, don’t think they are lacking incentives. They have plenty to play for.

When Jimmy Johnson was coaching at Miami, he once said that you can’t win a national championship unless you first win the Florida championship. The national title is out of reach for FSU, but the Seminoles have already beaten Miami so a win over Florida and they’re the state champs. Champions of Florida is better than champions of nothing at all. And maybe FSU can’t get to the big dance much less win it but the Seminoles sure can prevent the Gators from having any shot at winning either a state or national championship this year.

Considering the current state of FSU’s recruiting class for 2007, nothing could resurrect what has been a most untypical year more than a win over the Gators. A win and FSU can say that 2006 was an aberration, unlikely to happen again. A win and there is recruiting momentum. A win and Coach Bobby Bowden suddenly looks like a crafty old fox instead of a bumfuzzled 77-year-old that can’t remember the names of his players.

On the other hand, a win by the Gators and FSU sinks to its lowest point since Bobby Bowden’s first year on the job back in 1976. A win and Florida’s already extraordinary recruiting class for 2007 starts taking on monstrous proportions. A win and Urban Meyer starts looking like the 800-pound gorilla to Florida State and Miami programs that have hit hard times.

It is up to Meyer to make certain the Gators are on an emotional edge Saturday. There can be no letdowns, no thinking that the Seminoles have hit rock bottom and no looking ahead to Atlanta. Meyer has to have Florida in the same mindset he had the Gators in those big wins over Tennessee and LSU. He has to have his team lean, mean and hungry, ready to keep the hold the Seminoles heads under water until they go limp and quit breathing.

From a physical standpoint, he’s got to have Florida ready to come out of the gate swinging. The Gators came from behind to win at Tennessee and at home against Alabama, LSU and South Carolina. If they allow the Seminoles to get the lead, they might have a whole different set of problems to deal with. Expect FSU to play with a sense of desperation like a wounded animal. The best way to deal with a wounded animal is to put it out of its misery early. If the Gators get the Seminoles down, they need to kick them over and over again until there is nothing but a lifeless corpse of a team left.

This is Florida’s chance for a statement win of rather substantial proportions. In the two years of the Urban Meyer era at Florida, the Gators have become the hip young program on the rise. The perception is that the Florida program is on the way up while Miami is coachless and in total disarray and Florida State is hanging on by its fingernails to a dynasty that once was with an old, out of touch coach. If the Gators go into Doak Campbell Stadium and win, Florida has a firm grasp on the perception game and that is worth more than you can imagine. A win by two touchdowns or more and the Gators have a boot on the FSU and Miami throats, ready to crush their wind pipes.

This is a dangerous game with very high stakes for both the Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles. The thought here is that Urban Meyer and the Gators will have the greater sense of urgency and focus. This isn’t just a chance to separate themselves from their closest rivals. It’s a chance to stomp the life out of them. The hunch is they do it by a tune of 28-13.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.