PEACH: Not just a bowl game -- a call for exorcism

ATLANTA --- Just in case you've ever wondered if the Almighty has a sense of humor, then all you have to do is look at tonight's Peach Bowl matchup. We have the state championship of Florida being determined in the Georgia Dome, and if that can't convince you that there is a sense of humor in heaven, nothing will.

This is not just the state championship of Florida being determined on the green plastic rug and under the roof of the Georgia Dome. This is a public exorcism, a nationally televised event in which either the Florida Gators or the Miami Hurricanes will walk away on the last day of 2004, purged of the demons that plagued them the previous four months. It is Florida and Miami in the Peach Bowl, but it is far more than just a football game.

The fact that it is the Peach Bowl speaks volumes. This is not the place either team thought it would be when the season started back in September. Hopes were high that both teams would be participating in that beast we call the BCS on New Year's, not a second tier, made for cable television bowl that pits teams that didn't make it to the big bucks games of the regular networks.

Florida and Miami had such high expectations when it all began. The Hurricanes are always considered national championship contenders in the preseason. You win five national titles in 20 years and play for two or three others during the same stretch and people automatically consider you a contender when you walk out on the field, even when your quarterback is named Brock Berlin. Berlin's bad, but Hurricane fans thought not bad enough to cost a run at another title.

For Florida, this was the year the Gators got their groove back, only the groove really didn't come back until the last three games, and that was after Coach Ron Zook got the hook. Even though the Gators finished strong with a win over Florida State, the Gators lost four games, which is unfortunately the same number of regular season games the Gators lost in the two seasons prior to 2004. So, basically, other than it was an 11-game season instead of a 12-game slate as was the case in 2002 and 2003, nothing really changed in terms of the bottom line.

We'll get back to the Gators in a little bit. Right now, let's talk about the Hurricanes.

Miami lost three games this season, normally the same number that the Hurricanes lose cumulatively in any given three-year stretch. Throw in those three losses with last year's two losses on a team that had six first round draft picks and you have the making of a mutiny among the UM faithful, which rightfully wonders why it is that so many of the 19 wins of the last two seasons are every bit as ugly as the five losses.

Two losses isn't normal at Miami, especially when there's all that talent on the field as was the case in 2003. Three losses in a season is an aberration of nature. Fans see the same struggles game in and game out of the past two seasons, and they think that there's something truly rotten going on in Coral Gables. The one consistent they see in all the bad things is Berlin, who's been fairly average in most of the wins, fairly rotten in nearly all the losses.

Miami comes into this game desperately needing a win. Losing three games is bad enough, but when two of those losses are to North Carolina and Clemson, poster children for mediocrity in the first run through the Atlantic Coast Conference, it's a presecription for industrial strength Prilosec. Coach Larry Coker's job isn't on the line tonight because the Hurricanes lost three games this year. When you're 43-6 in your career, you've earned yourself a few mulligans, and he'll get one for this season simply because you can't justify canning a coach who's lost only six times in four years.

For Florida, five loss seasons aren't normal, at least since 1990, and Zook did that twice. This Florida team could be the third straight UF team to lose five in a season if the Gators can't pull out a win in the Peach Bowl.

While Coker gets a mulligan for a three-loss season and a lot of ugly wins, Zook is the head coach at Illinois. He's at Illinois because Florida fired him after a disaster of a loss to probably the worst team in the SEC, Mississippi State. But while it's easy to look at Florida's 7-4 regular season record as another year of mediocrity, it has to be noted that one of those losses was pure robbery because SEC zebra Bobby Moreau did his best imitation of an ACC official, and one play stood in the way of a win against LSU. If Florida wins those two games, chances are there is no loss at Mississippi State, and the Georgia game's a tossup. It's really a fine line between the perception of mediocre and the reality that a couple of plays here and there could have given.

So both teams come into this game in clear need of an exorcism. Miami can kill off the demons of a poor season with a win that erases the bitter taste of a lousy run in its first skip through an ACC schedule. A win enables convenient memories to delete the nightmare of Berlin under center and the momentum of a win carries over into a spring when the quarterback's initials will be ABB. Anyone But Berlin.

Or at least that's the thinking in Coral Gables.

Berlin's just one piece of the problem that Miami faces in the future, however. A bigger problem is inadequate personnel. While the Canes of 2001 and 2002 were powerful and dominating, the personnel that Miami will put on the field in 2005 won't have that same intimidating look even with a new quarterback. But, this is Miami, and because it's Miami, there will be the expectations. A win fuels the expectations and gives at least a false hope that things are back to normal.

For Florida, a win in the Peach Bowl will not be a statement that says Ron Zook should not have been fired. Whether he should or should not have been fired is no longer debatable. He was fired. He's got a new job at Illinois where he's likely to be quite successful, and Florida will have a brand new coach after this game.

A win for Florida puts the official stamp that the Zook era is ended with a thanks Ron, job well done, and a glad hand that welcomes Urban Meyer in. A win and fans forget the demons that plagued the Gators in the three previous years, when there was one heartbreaking loss after another and those unexplained losses to teams from Mississippi. A win and it's like the problems of the past can be shoved under the rug once Meyer gets here after Utah's Fiesta Bowl game with Pitt.

So in this unlikely setting for a Florida state championship game, we have a casting call for an Exorcist sequel and a need for every priest within a 400-mile radius to show up with his manual for performing ritual exorcism. When the clock strikes midnight tonight, one team can walk away from its demons. The other team will have to live with its demons for at least nine more months.

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