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Stakes are lower between Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles, but the desire to win is not

TALLAHASSEE

It is not a de facto playoff game, as it has been so often in the past.

Not with the Gators still fighting something of a hangover that was predicted for the first year after the Tim Tebow era. And not with the Seminoles still trying to re-establish themselves as prime-time players in the first year under coach Jimbo Fisher.

But today's renewal of the Florida-Florida State showdown is, as always, a game with great implications, if not nationally, then certainly within the Sunshine State's expansive borders.

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FSU senior linebacker Kendall Smith is from Bushnell, about a 45-minute drive from Gainesville. But the trip home after the season hasn't been pleasant for him of late; he has never beaten the Gators. No player on this FSU team has.

The Gators have won six in a row in the series, matching their second-longest streak of domination (1981-86) and three shy of matching their longest string (1968-76).

"I hear it every time I go home; they throw it in my face all the time," Smith said. "This year I hope things change so I can go back with a little bit of bragging rights on my shoulders."

FSU sophomore defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel has a similar tale. In his hometown, Greenville in Madison County, he has had to hear "You should have become a Gator."

But to a man, the No. 22-ranked Seminoles (8-3) want more than to quiet the UF fans. With a win, they can achieve one of their annual goals: to lay claim to the mythical state title by beating the Gators (7-4) and the Hurricanes.

FSU hasn't done that since its 1999 undefeated national championship season, but it has the chance after routing the Hurricanes 45-17 in October. If the Seminoles can claim that title, it would be another sign the program is on the way back to relevance in the state and nationally.

"It's another step (to take), another challenge," Fisher said. He said he has told his players "Florida is a great program. You want to change the perception of yourself and re-establish yourself in the national limelight. This is the chance to do that with success against a very good football team."

"I'm still expecting them to play like a top 5 team," FSU redshirt senior quarterback Christian Ponder said of the Gators.

Although the Gators have lost twice as many games this season as they have the past two years combined (13-1 and 13-1) and are using three quarterbacks, they continue to excel defensively, allowing an average of 300.18 yards per game, 10th in Division I-A. That means the FSU offense must be efficient and effective in the red zone, something it hasn't been consistently in recent years against the Gators. That means the FSU defense has to prevent big plays and create turnovers, again something it hasn't done a lot of recently in this series.

Also, FSU must focus on the game and not watch the scoreboard. Maryland hosts North Carolina State at the same time, and if the Terrapins win, the Seminoles will represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game Dec. 4 in Charlotte, N.C., against Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech.

But attention on the Gators shouldn't be a problem.

"In the offseason, everyone tells us, 'You've got to beat Florida this year. You've got to beat Florida this year,' " Ponder said. "I think if we went 1-11 and that win was over Florida, everybody would be satisfied."

• • •

What makes this season different for Florida compared to recent years is that it isn't the overwhelming favorite in this game. The Seminoles are the betting favorite.

"They are probably the best they've been since I've been playing them," Gators senior safety Ahmad Black said of the Seminoles.

With their dreams of an SEC title and BCS bowl game shattered, the Gators have one thing left to hang on to this weekend: pride.

The Gators don't take their current winning streak against the Seminoles lightly. And considering the miserable season they've endured — miserable at least by the standards they've created for themselves — retaining dignity, honor and self-esteem is what fuels them today.

"I think if you were to ask 99 percent of the team, it's about pride," senior defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. "Yes, we want to get to a better bowl game, but for the most part, it's about pride. Nobody wants to lose, especially with it being the last game of the season, to a big-time rival like this. Coach (Urban) Meyer is (5-0), I'm 4-0 against these guys, so I don't want to lose one to them. It's really about bragging rights. (The Seminoles are) having a good season, better than they have in the past. They feel like they can do anything with this new coach that they have. We're just trying to keep the tradition alive around here winning games."

It has been a long time since the Gators have been considered underdogs in this game. In August you would have had a hard time convincing Florida's seniors that 11 games in, they would be hanging the success of their season on a victory over FSU. But it's true.

"This is another must-win for us," senior center Mike Pouncey said. "If we win this one, there will be a lot of proud guys on this team. We lost our chance of going to the SEC Championship (Game), so now we're playing for pride and this university."

For quarterback John Brantley, a lifelong Florida fan who remembers the days this rivalry annually held national championship implications, a victory also would mean less ridicule for the next 365 days for a team that has taken its share of fan abuse this season.

"I hear from everyone it's just bragging rights for a year," he said. "No matter if (UF and FSU) are ranked 1-2 or 100 and 102, it's always a big game for us. We always want to try to get that victory against Florida State."

Meyer said his focus this week has been on preparing to execute today. He insisted he is not focused on the winning streak, but he recognizes how much a victory could help salvage a season, for his players and fans.

"I think it would do a lot to make this season a success," he said, "with everything that's happened."

Stakes are lower between Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles, but the desire to win is not 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 11:52pm]

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