NEW ORLEANS — For the first time in two years, the University of Florida is preparing to play a meaningless football game. Think about what a tremendous tribute that is to a program's relevance. Or, if you prefer, a damning illustration of how much was recently lost.
Just a few weeks ago, the Gators were the most prominent team in the country. When they walked on a field, they were not just playing a game. They were not just facing an opponent. This team was measuring itself against history and playing for a legacy that few others could claim.
The quarterback? He was going to be the best college football had ever seen. He had championship rings in his pocket and a Heisman Trophy on his shelf. And then came the fourth-quarter interception in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
The defense? It was the finest in the nation. This defense was the reason UF beat Tennessee, the reason it beat LSU and the reason it had a chance for back-to-back national championships. And then it gave up 32 points to Alabama.
The team? It was going to be a group for the ages. A 22-game winning streak and a chance to become the first program in 60 years to win three undisputed national championships in four years. And then that, too, went away.
"Every person on this team wants to prove that's not who we are," receiver David Nelson said. "That's not how we want to be remembered."
It's not as if all Florida's accomplishments have been wiped away by the 32-13 loss to Alabama this month. The seniors on this team are still the most accomplished class in the program's history. And a victory against Cincinnati on Friday would guarantee a No. 5 ranking, and UF could perhaps climb as high as No. 2.
Naturally, the players are saying all the right things about the Sugar Bowl. They may even believe some of them. But how do you spend a year aiming for something historic and then get excited about playing for pride? The momentum for this season had been built daily, beginning in the spring, growing through the summer and exploding into the fall.
At least a regular-season game against Charleston Southern had something at stake. The outcome may not have been in doubt, but every game the past two seasons had been building toward one national championship or another. Until now.
"Dealing with the Alabama loss has been frustrating," quarterback Tim Tebow said. "We want to play. We need to get back out there."
How did it all go wrong? How did a team go from legendary comparisons to getting humiliated by a league foe?
Looking back, you could say there were signs along the way. From the start, this offense has lacked a sense of explosiveness. The departures of receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy for the NFL, and an injury to freshman receiver Andre Debose have limited UF's vertical game. The passing game has averaged fewer yards per completion, and the offense has become more reliant on Tebow running the ball.
The game plan grew more conservative after offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left to become the head coach at Mississippi State, although UF coaches say there was no need to take risks on offense with the way the team's defense was playing.
And that, in the end, may be the most disappointing part of the Alabama game. The defense had shown no sign of weakness during the regular season, and then it gave up season highs in rushing and passing yards against the Crimson Tide.
"We'll never get over that game," cornerback Joe Haden said. "It's hard putting that kind of game behind you, but at the same time, we can't let it ruin everything for us. We're still in a BCS bowl game, and we have to remember that."
The natural fear is that something changed with that Alabama game. A bit of mystique was lost. A feeling of superiority was crushed. And now Florida is facing the reality of Tebow's final game, along with a host of other players departing.
Nick Saban has changed the landscape in the SEC, and Urban Meyer's health is another concern. Florida has not fallen off a ledge, but it is no longer standing alone atop college football's mountaintop.
"This game is the start of our next season," offensive lineman Mike Pouncey said. "We got embarrassed by Alabama, so we have a lot to prove this week."
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.