JACKSONVILLE — It has been a long time since Florida finished a football season with a losing record.
The Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles in Game 7 of the World Series, Willie Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon and the French Open, Magic Johnson's Michigan State defeated Larry Bird's Indiana State for the NCAA men's basketball title, and NFL star quarterback Drew Brees was born.
Can't quite place the year? Try 1979.
So it's not surprising that Florida coach Will Muschamp and his staff have spent the past several weeks impressing upon the 2011 team how important a win in today's Gator Bowl is for both this team and the program.
A loss will forever link this squad to the 1979 team that didn't win a single game (0-10-1) in Charley Pell's first season. And while 6-7 won't quite sink to that level, Muschamp wants the players to understand that for a program that has become accustomed to winning national championships the past two decades, a loss today would be considered a failure.
"It's not something we want to have happen," Muschamp said. "I certainly know that these players and myself — and us as a staff — don't want to be saddled with that. Is that a motivating factor? Certainly should be. But again, playing well and putting that uniform on, whether you're a senior for the last time or as we move forward with our young players in our program, playing well and winning the game, that ought to be the motivation, too, regardless of the external circumstances."
Whichever team suffers the loss will carry a similar burden. Ohio State, which is also 6-6, has not had a losing season since it went 4-6-1 in 1988. And the Buckeyes, too, are trying to avoid being linked to a less successful past.
"It's two programs that aren't used to being in this spot," senior center Mike Brewster said. "It's really just (playing) for pride at this point."
Added OSU senior running back Dan "Boom" Herron: "It's definitely going to be a game that we want to get a win, not just for the seniors but for the whole program and the Buckeye nation."
In many ways, what this game is about for the Ohio State players is completing what has been a difficult journey. The Buckeyes have had the added burden of the resignation of coach Jim Tressel in May, then being led by interim coach Luke Fickell, who had no head coaching experience. They've tried to find normalcy amid the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation, which the players acknowledged has not been easy. A win, they said, would help end things the right way and set the tone for the future.
"It's been a growing process for all of us, especially the seniors," Brewster said. "I feel like we've just grown a ton, not only as players but handling the situation. Finishing the win against Florida would be a good way to go out."
So although their records don't impress, both sides said expect an all-out battle today. Pride and fear of failure can bring out the best — at least that's what they hope — because both teams are desperate to avoid leaving behind the legacy of being "that team."
"It is what it is," Florida sophomore receiver Andre Debose said. "It would be embarrassing to be the team to go down as the first losing team in all those years."
BRANTLEY SAYS NO REGRETS: It has not been the kind of career quarterback John Brantley had envisioned when he signed with Florida as the Gatorade national quarterback of the year in 2006.
Brantley spent the early part of his career as Tim Tebow's backup, and he has struggled as a two-year starter in a system he wasn't suited for, then under a new coaching staff this season.
Yet Brantley, who in 40 games has thrown for 4,618 yards, 29 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, insists he has never wondered what might have been if he played somewhere else.
"I grew up as a Gator and all that," said Brantley, an Ocala native. "Now that I'll be exiting this program after this game, I'll always be a Gator through thick and thin. I'll always be wearing the orange and blue and watching them on Saturdays for years to come.
"I'm just fortunate enough to wake up every day and put on the Gator uniform. To be able to have this opportunity to play major college football at such a great university and one that I have loved my entire life is a dream come true, and I wouldn't want it any other way."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected].com.