It took months for Florida left tackle Marcus Gilbert to get past the 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in December. And he wasn't the only Gator with that problem.
Gilbert, a senior, couldn't wait for the chance to meet the Tide at least one more time.
That time has arrived.
No. 7 Florida (4-0, 2-0 SEC) plays at No. 1 Alabama (4-0, 1-0) tonight in a nationally televised game. The rematch has brought up heartbreaking memories of that night in Atlanta for the Gators.
"(I remember) just walking off that field and being disgusted at the loss," Gilbert said this week. "I couldn't stop thinking about it for months. I'm glad this game is here, and I'm ready to go. I think that loss was the most damaging loss I've ever had in my career. … We were playing for a championship. Losing that game, we had a lot at stake. I took it to heart, it was kind of personal. It was just another motivational thing to get going, get better as a team and get better this year."
Unlike the last meeting, there are no imminent championship implications. The winner won't automatically advance to the BCS title game. Yet the players say it hasn't diminished the magnitude of today's game.
"I think that the timing of the game is a little bit different, but it's still very important," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "Obviously, without a victory then we're going to have a harder time getting to where we want to be. And we understand that each game is so important, not only with the way people view you but the way you view yourself and the way you have confidence going into the next week. So we're looking forward to the challenge this week."
This time the stakes are different for each team. For Florida, it's not so much a shot at revenge but redemption.
"I think any Florida fan has this game circled, but it's one game out of the season," UF center Mike Pouncey said. "That loss was a big loss because it was for a championship. We based our whole offseason on getting to Atlanta, and we've got to beat one of the best teams in the SEC to get there."
"A lot of people are asking if there is payback," Florida coach Urban Meyer added. "A good majority of our team wasn't even with us last year during the game."
For Alabama, the defending national champion, there's no looking back.
"It's a new year," Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram said. "What happened last year, happened. It's not really going to help us win or help them win this year. What's going to help either team win is what we do, how we prepare all week long and how we go out and play on Saturday."
On paper, the teams have much in common. Alabama's No. 1 in the SEC in scoring offense (39.5 points per game); Florida is No. 2 (37.8). They are Nos. 2 and 3 in the league, respectively, in total defense (Alabama 295.3 yards per game, Florida 295.5). Each has given up just one rushing touchdown this season.
But there are also vast differences. Alabama has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Ingram, and a quarterback who has never lost a high school or college game as a starter and has won a national title. UF quarterback John Brantley is making his fifth start, only his second on the road, surrounded by teammates admittedly still finding their way on offense. A Gators victory, Meyer said, can't rest solely on Brantley.
"It's all-in, man," Meyer said. "To get on a plane and go play in this kind of environment is not (just) John. John is one part of the machine. If the machine operates at a high level, John will do just fine. If one of the five (doesn't) play well up front, Johnny is not going to be fine. If some receiver doesn't perform at a very high level, they are not going to be fine."
In some respects, this game is akin to a mulligan for both teams.
"This is not the end of the season for either team," said CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who is calling tonight's game. "This is a cross-divisional game, and the loser doesn't necessarily die. They can resurface and play each other again because each team can absorb a loss and still get to Atlanta."
But if you listen to the players, that's not the approach they're taking.
"We're not going to try to make it just another game, because at the end of the day, we still know what happened last year," UF senior receiver Carl Moore said. "We can feed off that and just be hungrier and work even harder to go out there and win."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.