It's not the 1990s, for sure, but the Florida-Florida State rivalry resembles old times much more this season. National championship implications. A chance to regain some status and national prominence. And the usual bad blood that generally accompanies a rivalry game thrown in just for good measure. Today's game means everything for both teams — but for clearly different reasons.
'Everybody knows what can happen' if we don't win
To understand what this game means to the Gators, you need look no further than ESPN's SportsCenter.
Whenever the conversation turns to the national championship, the Gators are in the discussion.
Conventional wisdom says if they defeat the Seminoles today then knock off Alabama in the SEC title game next week, they will earn their way into the BCS national championship game.
Which is why this week Florida coach Urban Meyer called the next two weeks among the most important in Florida football history.
This time around, it's not just about the rivalry. It's not just about beating the "team out west" as Meyer likes to refer to Florida State. It's not even about that mythical state championship. It's about keeping alive the possibility of winning it all. And players and coaches alike understand that. Nobody is overlooking FSU.
"The Monday and Tuesday packages were so much thicker than usual," sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said. "The scouting report is like we're looking at the whole season. So we've got a lot of film, a lot of tip sheets. The coaches have been taking it seriously and getting to us. We're taking it the same way."
One of Meyer's greatest concerns is a tight game. Florida has outscored opponents 122-0 in the first quarter of the past six games and hasn't been challenged late in a game during that span. Meyer believes that could change today, so the players have practiced two-minute drills and late-game situations more than usual.
"I think we can focus on this game just because it's a huge rivalry game," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said. "This is a game we've trained for all year. It's not just the next game. It's Florida State. There's a reason that they're a big rivalry game. … So it's not hard to focus on this one."
Among the Gator players this week, talk centered around keeping things in perspective. They understand how much the Seminoles would love to ruin their shot at a national title. They understand that if they look past FSU to Atlanta next week, they could be looking at a repeat of Ole Miss, who won at Gainesville on Sept. 27.
"Everybody knows what can happen if we don't handle our business," junior linebacker Brandon Spikes said.
'The greatest stride would be if we … win'
The No. 23 Seminoles last won eight regular-season games in 2004 and seem headed for one of the top bowls affiliated with the ACC — the Chick-fil-A or Gator. And they still can win the ACC's Atlantic Division and advance to the championship Dec. 6 in Tampa to play for a spot in the Orange Bowl if Maryland wins today at Boston College.
Not bad, right?
Well, beating Florida looms as a more accurate measurement of just how far FSU has come from last year and how far it still has to go before it can reclaim a spot among the nation's elite.
"What could we do greater this year than if we beat them?" FSU coach Bobby Bowden asked rhetorically. "I think the greatest stride would be if we could win that game."
He and his players realize that no matter their bowl destination, they won't play a team as highly ranked as the No. 2 Gators, who have won four straight in the series. Nor will they have a better chance to do what they did annually during their dynasty years: impact the national title.
"(A win) would mean a lot," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Christian Ponder, who will face Florida for the first time.
"It's been a while since we've beaten Florida. A lot of people would take 1-11 if we beat Florida. It's funny how fans are, but that's how it is. There's a lot riding on this game. We've already had a pretty good year, but to top it off and beat Florida and ruin their chance for a national championship would be pretty awesome."
The Seminoles nearly did that in the 2006 meeting in Tallahassee. The score was tied at 14 in the fourth quarter before Chris Leak drove Florida for the go-ahead touchdown of a 21-14 win.
The Gators went on to win the SEC title, gain a spot in the Bowl Championship Series finale and rout No. 1 Ohio State for the program's second national title.
"We've had a motto this year of going into every game with a chip on our shoulder and proving to the country that we're Florida State," redshirt junior defensive end Everette Brown said.
One step to that end would be winning the "state title." That's wins against Miami and Florida. The Seminoles, who won a wild one at Miami this year 41-39, haven't pulled off that double since 1999, when they went wire-to-wire as the nation's top team and won their second national title.
"This is a good game for us to make a statement," Ponder said, "and say that we belong up with the big guns."
"We're better," junior receiver Preston Parker added. "Now (people are saying), 'Show me. Show me against Florida.' "
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347. Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.