GAINESVILLE — Tonight's annual showdown between Florida and Florida State was supposed to be the regular-season finale of two revitalized programs. The Seminoles began the season as a preseason top-10 team, with visions of an ACC championship. The Gators were a Top 25 team, hoping to rebound from a subpar season with a new coach and a new offense.
Instead, tonight's game between the Gators and Seminoles at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium will mark the first time since 1986 that the two have met when neither was ranked in the Top 25. And although the rest of the nation might not be paying much attention, don't dare tell the Gators or Seminoles that this game doesn't have significance. Your argument will fall on deaf ears.
"That's why it's a rivalry," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "When you have a rivalry, records don't matter. So I don't think that diminishes it at all. To me, if records diminish a series, then it's not a true rivalry."
FSU has won five of its past six games, but Gainesville has not been kind to the Seminoles. Since 1993, FSU has won in Gainesville just twice — in 1999 during its wire-to-wire national championship run and in 2003 when Chris Rix threw a winning touchdown pass to P.K. Sam in the final minute.
And the Gators want to keep it that way.
"That's the 'Team Out West,' " said UF senior receiver Deonte Thompson, using the words of former coach Urban Meyer. "That's what's ingrained in my head. The older guys, we still do (use the term). … We just really don't like FSU."
FSU quarterback EJ Manuel grew up watching the rivalry games, and he said playing at Florida Field in a 37-10 loss in 2009 was tough, partly because he was injured. He believes he is much more prepared this time, and he says the Seminoles have a lot at stake.
"It would definitely wrap the season up strong and then obviously our goal as far as being state champion," Manuel said. "We beat Miami, and we'd like to beat Florida as well. It's kind of the same situation, a lot of guys that are on this team also played with these guys in high school and played against them, so it's going to be a very competitive, tough game. That's what we wanted, and that's what we're expecting."
For Florida's seniors, the game provides an opportunity to close out a miserable season with a better ending: beating FSU in the final regular-season game.
"This one probably overrides all the losses," senior running back Chris Rainey said. "That's the way we're looking at it."
Florida's Will Muschamp gets his first taste of the rivalry as a head coach, but as a lifetime Gator fan he understands just how crucial the game is.
"I don't know that it would override the losses, I just think certainly ending on a positive note against Florida State would be a shot in the arm for us emotionally heading into a bowl game, heading into our offseason and sending the seniors out the right way," Muschamp said. "There's no question, winning helps everything, it puts everybody in a better mood, you become a better coach all of a sudden when you win a game. All that kind of good stuff. You're a better player and everybody's a little bit happier and all that. There's no question it would help."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.