Throughout the 1990s, Florida vs. Florida State was among the premier college football rivalries in the nation. But as each program went through various struggles and periods of rebuilding, the game lost some of its luster. Florida won six consecutive meetings between 2004 and 2009, seven of nine from 2001-09.
But Florida and Florida State meet this afternoon at Doak Campbell Stadium and the national prominence has returned. The No. 6 Gators (10-1) are ranked No. 4 in the BCS and are playing for a BCS bowl berth and a potential shot at a national title game appearance — with help from a few other teams. The 10th-ranked Seminoles (10-1) need a victory over the Gators to maintain their top-10 BCS standing and attempt to move up.
But this week you'd be hard-pressed to find any Gators discussing anything but the Seminoles. And vice versa. Florida coach Will Muschamp's message for his team on Monday was simple: focus on what you can control, leave the BCS "clutter" outside where it belongs.
"We can only control what we can control, we can't worry about everything else going on," Florida junior center Jonotthan Harrison said. "Our next step to the BCS is beating FSU. So that's the point of emphasis. We can't worry about any external factors. All we can control is us."
Muschamp and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher understand what's at stake for both programs. The Gators have lost two straight in the series and scored a combined 14 points in that span. The Seminoles are trying to extend their recent dominance. So, to be clear, the rivalry is as important as the rankings.
"This game is important for a lot of reasons besides any ranking that's involved or anything outside of that," said Muschamp, who added that coaches hired at Florida understand beating FSU is part of keeping their jobs. "It's an important game for the University of Florida. It's important for your state to win this football game. There's a lot of other reasons that come first and foremost in my mind as opposed to the external situation out there."
Fisher couldn't agree more.
"This is a Florida game," Fisher said. "If you need that for motivation to play Florida, then something isn't right. We're going to play Florida, and it's nothing about the BCS or rankings or anything else. We know the importance of this game because it's Florida. That's why you're here at Florida State — to play, compete and do well against Florida, and that's our sole purpose."
The game features two of the nation's top defenses. FSU is ranked No. 1 in total defense (236.27), while the Gators are No. 4 (281).
"We definitely want to try our best to have a dominant defensive performance," Florida junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins said.
UF's biggest issue in handling the talented FSU defense is that it's working with an offense ranked No. 104 nationally and with sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel returning for the first time since suffering a sprained ankle on Nov. 10. Driskel's health will be a concern.
"I know it's a very physical game," Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. "I know, because you're playing against your friends, you're playing against kids that you've grown up with, not necessarily at your school but other schools that you've played against in high school. So you want to be at your best. You want to have that bragging right for a year. And you know, you want to have the credit to step out and be proud of what you've done. It's going to be, the kids have got the passion to win this one, obviously."
FSU quarterback EJ Manuel said the key against Florida's defense will be picking up the blitzes and getting the ball out quickly. Ultimately, he said, it's still all about the rivalry.
"I just look forward to playing the game," Manuel said. "It's a huge game, it's Florida. Even if both of these teams weren't in the top 10 or both of us were 0-11, it would still be a huge game in the state of Florida. I have learned that in my five years here, and I am extremely happy about (today's) game."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]
No. 6 Florida at No. 10 Florida State
3:30 p.m. today, Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee
TV/radio: Ch. 28; 620-AM, 1040-AM
Line: FSU by 7
Weather: Sunny, mid to low 60s, no chance of rain, wind 9-10 mph
Today's top national games
• No. 20 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State, noon, Ch. 28
• Auburn at No. 2 Alabama, 3:30, Ch. 10
• No. 1 Notre Dame at USC, 8, Ch. 28