It is the ultimate setup game for the Florida Gators this week when they travel to Tallahassee to play arch-rival Florida State. The 10-1 Gators are ranked fourth in the nation and doing all they can to get a shot at the national title. The Seminoles are an uncharacteristic 6-5 but a win over the Gators would go a long way toward salvaging their season.
The Seminoles are in the midst of their worst season in 30 years but they’re still a very talented team with a roster loaded top to bottom with players the Gators also tried to recruit. For the Gators, this is a dangerous game. Florida has to think of the Seminoles as a top tier team even though the record indicates something else. The Gators have to be aware that because they are favored to win, the Seminoles can play loose. FSU has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“We have to take care of business first,” Meyer said. “We have to worry about facing one of the most talented teams in the country in FSU.”
Last year, the FSU game was a springboard for turning around a Florida program that was struggling to buy into new attitudes and ideas brought in by a first year coach. Florida’s win over FSU gave Meyer the momentum he needed to turn the corner on the program. Meyer is well aware that Florida State will try to use similar motivation this week. FSU is a program trying to get back on track after years of unprecedented success and a win over Florida would right a lot of wrongs from this season and become a motivational tool to get the program back to where it was.
When the Gators beat FSU, 34-7, last year it was a turning point win. The Gators were 7-3 going into that game, a team on a train wreck collision course. Two weeks earlier Florida had lost to South Carolina in Columbia, a loss that took the Gators out of the SEC championship game. Florida was a team with serious problems.
“Last year we were a program a little bit in disarray,” said Meyer. “We were not a very good team. It was after the South Carolina loss. As a matter of fact, we were a very poor team. We had some good players but it was a bad team.
“It was a team that had a player laughing on the plane ride on the way home after losing the SEC championship in Columbia, South Carolina. It was other guys’ parents worried about why he didn’t touch the ball enough. Why this? Why that? I’m going to transfer. I’m going to do this. It was as bad a football team as I’ve ever been around.”
When the team plane landed in Gainesville, it stayed on the tarmac for a couple of hours. Players have described that two hours as brutal but when they finally got off the plane, the stage was set for a lot of changes. Florida had an open week so there were two weeks before the FSU game, time enough to change some things.
“Two weeks of practice and that game changed the program for hopefully along time,” Meyer said. “We made some personnel changes. We relieved a few people of their duty on the team.”
Two weeks later, the Gators destroyed FSU on the field and in the locker room after the game a recruiting avalanche began for Florida. Meyer understands that Florida needs to maintain its momentum against FSU this week and he knows that FSU needs a win to right its own ship.
“I would imagine the magnitude of this game goes deep on both sides,” he said. “I got first hand experience of it. We went from being a very poor team to a decent team and a good team by the time we hit the bowl game and the FSU game made the difference.”
In the locker room after the FSU game last year, several outstanding players committed to the Gators. In three weeks following, the bulk of Florida’s signing class was committed, including quarterback Tim Tebow. The live wire atmosphere in the Florida locker room helped spark the momentum.
“Everything you’ve heard about what happened in the locker room after this game a year ago it’s true,” said Meyer. “I had to be careful to walk around with my hands in my pocket because I had to be very careful about whose hand we were shaking. It is unbelievable what happened in the locker room after that game.”
Counting the FSU game of 2005, the Gators are 12-1 in their last 13 games, the only loss at Auburn this year. Momentum is on Florida’s side but Meyer knows that can change instantly with a loss.
“Charlie Strong [Florida co-defensive coordinator] is the guy that knows more than anybody … he’s been here forever and he says quite often that the winner of this game usually shakes the hands,” said Meyer. “This game … the magnitude is tremendous.”
Florida has already wrapped up most of its recruiting class but there are still gems to be had in that area, plus there is that minor little detail of staying in contention for the national championship. The Gators can’t control the voters that will determine who gets to Glendale to play Ohio State, but they can put themselves in contention for a spot by winning at Florida State and then the next week in the SEC title game in Atlanta.
Meyer knows that the Gators’ only shot is to take it one game at a time and first item of business is a Florida State team coached by Bobby Bowden, the winningest coach in college football history. Meyer says that Bowden and Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who is just a couple of wins behind Bowden, are unique coaches whose accomplishments will probably never be duplicated.
“When they [Bowden and Paterno] decide to quit coaching — whenever that is and hopefully it’s not for awhile — those records will never be touched again,” Meyer said.
It will be Meyer’s first venture into Tallahassee and Doak Campbell Stadium, one of college football’s most inhospitable environments for visiting teams. The Gators won their last game in Tallahassee two years ago, Ron Zook’s farewell win as the Florida coach. Meyer knows how tough it will be to escape Tallahassee with a win but he also knows that by winning, the implications are outstanding for the Gators.
“There is a great football coach there, a great football coach that hasn’t lost many games on that stadium that bears his name but I do believe we can make a major impact by playing well there,” he said.
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Meyer got a chance to take a look at several outstanding freshmen for a protracted length of time when the Gators beat Western Carolina, 62-0. Tebow ran for 47 yards and two touchdowns and he threw for 200 yards and two more scores. Wide receiver Riley Cooper caught three passes for 82 yards, all for touchdowns with a longest play of 55 yards. Redshirt freshman David Nelson caught three passes for 47 yards. Percy Harvin had three catches for 43 yards. Freshman quarterback/wide receiver Jarred Fayson ran seven times for 77 yards and tailback Mon Williams had nine carries for 95 yards. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Brandon Spikes led the way with six tackles while Dustin Doe had four and redshirt freshman Ryan Stamper had three.
Sixteen members of Florida’s recruiting class of ‘06 have already seen action this year. With so many talented young players, the future of Florida football looks very bright.
“I can tell you this that in however long I’ve been coaching I’ve never been more excited about a group of young players than the group we have now,” said Meyer.
Meyer said that everywhere he goes he hears raves about the freshmen.
“I hear it quite often from family members, from staff members, from the athletic director … how excited they are and let’s get these guys going,” he said.
What is particularly pleasing to Meyer is that so many of the youngsters have learned to practice hard every day. It’s a big jump for the young guys who come to Florida after high school careers where they were the big stars and quite often pampered a bit. When they arrive at Florida, they first have to learn how to practice hard every single day and then they have to earn their playing time by first serving on the special teams.
“To cut your teeth running down on kickoff, that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be done,” said Meyer.
The importance of learning to practice hard every day cannot be underestimated in Meyer’s opinion.
“Riley Cooper made the comment afterwards that he really learned how to practice the last 5-6 weeks,” said Meyer. “When you hear those things and then also you hear Jacques Rickerson saying the same things and Jamar Hornsby … they aren’t playing this year. I think the future is really bright and we’re having a good recruiting class now.”
With recruiting, Meyer says one of the first orders of business is to restore a level of consistency to the program. The Gators are top heavy with seniors and top heavy with freshmen but thin in between. There needs to be a consistent level of departing seniors and incoming freshmen for the program to operate at peak efficiency.
“The teams that are mentioned in the national championship hunt, everyone has consistency except the University of Florida,” he said. “We’re the only ones dealing with imbalance. “You talk about USC, Texas, Ohio State and Michigan … they’re established and they recruit to a system. That’s where we’re a little bit behind. We’re working hard as we can to catch up.”