Nobody took Mississippi State seriously last year. That was a win that everyone had penciled in on Florida's dance card because no self-respecting Southeastern Conference team should ever lose to a team that lost to Maine. Then again, no self-respecting Southeastern Conference team should ever even play Maine much less lose to the not so mighty Black Bears.
Yet, Florida found a way to lose to the team that was conquered by Maine, a game the Gators should have won by at least three or four touchdowns and a game not unlike too many others during the Coach Ron Zook error when Florida did the unexplainable.
Urban Meyer is the coach at Florida, in part, because of what happened at Mississippi State last year. That 38-33 loss in Starkville wasn't the only reason the Good Ship Zook was sent to dry dock with four years left on his contract but it certainly was the final domino to fall.
One era of Florida football ended and another had its beginnings in a game that should have never been lost. But, if Zook had simply won the games that should have never been lost, he would still be the coach at Florida and he would be enjoying his fourth Homecoming game on the sidelines in Gainesville instead of trying to figure out if he's got enough Jessies and Joes to win that big Illinois-Indiana game Saturday, a game in which the over-under is 10 minutes before fans from both teams start asking who's got extra tickets for Midnight Madness?
The Florida fan base already has a win against Mississippi State penciled in. Gator fans are far more worried about Chris Leak's future with the Florida offense than they are with Mississippi State. The game hasn't been played and far too many Florida fans are already trying to figure out if the spread option will get enough of a tweaking against Mississippi State to be effective against LSU next week in Baton Rouge. Nobody takes Mississippi State seriously.
Fans think this game is a gimme but Meyer has approached it this week as if the Bulldogs are a clone of the New England Patriots. He is well aware of what's at stake here. He knows that when the Gators lost last week, their cushion in the SEC East race became razor thin. Florida could have added some distance from the pack last week but the loss leaves the Gators no margin for error.
Saturday's game is indeed another of those no way the Gators should lose affairs. Although Florida has some holes in its two-deep roster, the Gators are at least a couple of galaxies distant from the Bulldogs when it comes to talent levels. It helps that the game is in Gainesville and it also is good that Meyer is the coach. His history tells us that it's pretty rare when he loses a game that he shouldn't and this is one of those games. Meyer is very old school and the old school guys will always tell you that the secret to longevity in coaching is winning all the no way you can lose games.
It is also a revenge game. Meyer has been saying all week long that what happened last year doesn't matter but don't believe him for a second. It really does matter. It matters because he's a coach who's into the traditions of college football and he understands that in the world of college athletics, particularly college football in the south, paybacks are hell. You don't let a bad deed like last year's loss go unpunished.
A revenge mentality is important because first and foremost you don't let a team the likes of Mississippi State beat you two years straight. Secondly, you don't ever pass up an opportunity to exact a full measure of revenge. You get revenge because it ratchets up your fan base and you get revenge because you want your players to know that what happened before was totally and completely unacceptable. Exacting revenge can't ever take away the hurt of the year before, but it makes a statement to your team that this is the way you should have done it then and this is the way we're going to do it from here on out.
So bet the ranch that while Meyer says there's no revenge factor in public, in private he's telling his team that he expects them to dismantle Mississippi State in such a way that the Bulldogs can never, ever, even for a millisecond in the future think they can beat the Florida Gators.
Expect the Gators to win Saturday and with any luck at all, the offense will show up in a way that it hasn't so far this season, hitting on all cylinders early and often. A big win will be good for the Gators and good for Meyer. For sure, it won't put back all the sparkles that were knocked off the cake last week but it will re-establish confidence that will be so desperately needed when Florida travels to Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge is no place to go lacking confidence so there is a premium on winning with a certain amount of authority Saturday.
Even if the Gators turn in their best effort of the season offensively, there will still be questions about the spread option until it works well in a blowout win against a top SEC defense. So no matter what Florida does Saturday the doubts won't be settled with the offense but at least a healthy win will inject an even healthier dose of confidence that this team will need the following week.
Meyer knows that that confidence can do for his team. He's only had one big game on the road in the SEC, but the lesson of Tuscaloosa wasn't lost on him. You need every edge you can to win on the road in this league against top teams so getting the Gators patched up emotionally and on the right track again is his a-number-one priority. He can dispel any number of doubts with a solid, authoritative win. Beating Mississippi State won't get back all that was lost at Alabama but will go a long way toward retooling an image that needs to regain some sparkle very quickly.
THE PREDICTION: This is the day that the name Markus Manson becomes a household word for Gator Nation. He will be the jumper cables that give the spread option the boost it needs. If Florida scores on the opening drive, this could get ugly in a hurry.