Florida-FSU: The Stakes Are Still Very High

When Urban Meyer looks at the film on the Florida State Seminoles, he doesn’t see a 6-5 team that has struggled at one time or another this season in just about every phase of the game. He doesn’t see a team that just became bowl eligible. He sees plenty of fast, talented athletes, many of whom he tried to recruit to the University of Florida.

It is an uncharacteristic FSU team that the 10-1 Gators will be facing in Tallahassee Saturday, but the lack of usual success in the won/lost column means nothing on Saturday. This is a huge rivalry game that the favorite doesn’t always win and it is a game that has huge emotional investment for the players since they’re often squaring off against childhood buddies and former high school teammates. For so many of the kids that will play the game, the colors they will wear Saturday were chosen only after a long, agonizing decision-making process.

All these factors fuel one of the most intense rivalries in college football. Even in a year when one of the two teams is below par there is plenty at stake. The Gators are still in the mix for a national championship so spoiling Florida’s season will add fuel to FSU’s fire and there are those recruiting implications as well.

Even though the Gators are well on their way to a second straight top five recruiting class, a slip up in Tallahassee could cost Florida some recruits that are leaning toward Gainesville. Florida State is somewhat behind in recruiting at this stage of the game but a win by the Seminoles could get some needed recruiting momentum going their way. That alone is reason to expect the Seminoles to pull out all the stops to try to derail the Gators this weekend.

Last year Meyer and the Gators rolled the recruiting dice on the FSU weekend. Florida was 7-3 and coming off a stunning and unexpected loss to South Carolina in Columbia. FSU had already secured its place in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and there were quite a few recruits on the Florida-FSU bubble, a good number of whom came to Gainesville for both official and unofficial visits.

It was high stakes ploy that paid off for the Gators when they blew the doors off the Seminoles, 34-7. A loud, electric atmosphere in The Swamp became a highly charged, second-to-none atmosphere in the locker room after the game. With a room full of excited recruits watching and listening, Meyer came on stronger than a TV evangelist playing to a packed arena of lost souls. He preached and one recruit after another answered that altar call. That night and in the next couple of weeks, a recruiting avalanche was started that gave Florida a clear cut victory in the recruiting wars for the class of 2006.

“Last year we had a bunch of recruits in,” Meyer said at his Monday media gathering. “It was a locker room full of people. If you fail a lot of those kids go home and they probably go to school somewhere else.”

The Gators didn’t lose too many recruits that weekend. Florida State still got a few but Florida went on to have a class that has been ranked as high as number one but no worse than number two by every leading recruiting analyst. Florida State finished strong enough to land a top ten class, but the roles could have been reversed that Saturday afternoon in The Swamp if the Seminoles had pulled out the win instead of the Gators.

Recruiting superiority is one of the major reasons that Meyer places such great importance on winning games against the biggest rivals. The Gators are 5-0 in two years under Meyer against their big three rivals (Tennessee, Georgia and FSU). A win over the Seminoles Saturday would make it two straight years of a clean sweep in rivalry games.

“One of the unique characteristics about this job is you have some great rivalry games,” said Meyer. “A lot of schools have one and some have none and we have obviously three terrific ones. This is kinda the new era. For the old Gators, it seemed to be Florida-Georgia. For the new ones it seems to be this one coming up.”

The Florida-FSU rivalry took on a new level of intensity in 1990 when Steve Spurrier became Florida’s coach. For the next 12 years, the Gators and the Seminoles were usually in contention for the national championship and for a lot of Gator fans that elevated the level of importance of this game, particularly since the Gators owned Georgia over the same period and won most of the important head to head encounters with Tennessee.

From a recruiting-only standpoint, however, the Florida-FSU game has the greatest significance.

“I think it’s very important,” said Meyer. “I think in this state probably more than others. Like Notre Dame and USC, I don’t think that’s a very big recruiting war. Ohio State-Michigan is. I remember being involved in that for two years and that’s a huge recruiting war. I imagine Alabama-Auburn is a lot like that for in-state kids. For the in-state player this is a tremendous and big game.”

Since he already knows so many of the kids that play for Florida State personally because he recruited them, Meyer sees this year’s game from a different perspective.

“The bottom line is when you put their checkers against our checkers and their checkers are as fast, and as strong and can jump as high,” Meyer said. “They’re extremely talented. All you have to do is look at who they’ve recruited and who’s playing for them. That’s as fast a team as there is in college football.”

So while FSU’s record may say it’s a down year, Meyer will take nothing for granted this week. Florida’s place in the SEC championship game is secure and a win Saturday keeps the Gators in the hunt for the berth opposite Ohio State in the national championship game. While FSU doesn’t have nearly the same incentives, the Seminoles have plenty to play for, too. Although bowl-eligible, FSU could still finish with a losing record. A loss to the Gators and a loss in a bowl game would put FSU below .500 for the first time in 30 years. A win salvages a bad season, assures the Seminoles of a winning record and could save the recruiting class.

If the Gators win, it will further distance the Gators from their in-state rivals when it comes to recruiting. An FSU win and the Seminoles dig in their heels and at least keep the Gators within shouting distance. The stakes are high Saturday, as high as they’ve ever been.

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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.