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For Gators, team pride is at stake

Two of their biggest rivals _ Tennessee and Florida State _ are in Tempe, Ariz., preparing for Monday's national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. The No.

7 Gators are in Miami, soaking up the rays and preparing for No.

18 Syracuse on Saturday night.

But UF coach Steve Spurrier said his players still are motivated in a game that may mean little by comparison.

"It's still a very important bowl game," Spurrier said at Thursday's media day at the Orange Bowl. "We'll try our best. We're really in the same situation as last year."

Last season, the Gators defeated Penn State 21-6 in the Citrus Bowl after finishing 9-2 and with no Southeastern Conference title. It was the first time since the 1994 season the Gators were out of the national title hunt, after losing to Nebraska 62-24 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and winning the crown 52-20 over Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl.

Still, players want to perform well to leave a lasting impression until the 1999 season begins.

"This is our last game and all of us know that," LB Johnny Rutledge said. "We are going to go out and play our best."

Florida also missed out on an SEC crown for the second straight season. Spurrier thinks that despite having three losses, Syracuse (8-3) had a more successful season because it won the Big East.

"I'd much rather be 8-3 with a conference title than 9-2 without one," Spurrier said.

MAKING A RETURN: RB Vannez Gooch will play. Gooch had to sit out the season because of NCAA rules after transferring from FSU in the spring. He could see time at tailback and on special teams.

"Vannez is going to play some," Spurrier said. "It will be interesting to see what he does."

HAPPY MEMORIES: Special-teams coordinator/tight ends coach Lawson Holland walked onto the Orange Bowl field and said, "This place brings back a lot of memories." Holland last was in the Orange Bowl when Clemson beat Nebraska 22-15 on Jan. 1, 1982, for the national title. He was Clemson's receivers coach.

DO I KNOW YOU?: S Teako Brown almost became an Orangeman. As a senior at Miami Carol City High, Brown orally committed to Syracuse because the state schools had not been too interested in him.

He decided to take his visit to Florida even after he committed, then changed his mind. An assistant coach at the time, Red Anderson, helped convince Brown the Gators were interested in him.

Though this is a homecoming for Brown, he said he is trying to stay focused on Syracuse.

"I'm here for the team," Brown said. "They're not from Miami. They want to win and I want to win. I'm not going to get caught up with my emotions."