To The Winner Are Positive Perceptions

Let's face it, we were so spoiled by the 12 years of the Evil Genius plotting all sorts of mayhem against the former aide de camp for General Black Jack Pershing --- or was he there with Teddy Roosevelt when the Rough Riders stormed up San Juan Hill? --- that our expectations permanently list toward unrealistic. Because we had those 12 incredible years getting used to the reality of 7-3 isn't easy but that's where we are this Thanksgiving weekend.

We have the 7-3 Florida Gators squaring off against the 7-3 Florida State Seminoles, a game in which there are no national championship expectations on the line, quite a difference from the days when it was Steven Orr Spurrier off against Bobby Bowden. Back then it was rare when at least one or both teams were not in the national championship hunt when Thanksgiving weekend rolled around and it was equally rare when rivalry's intensity wasn't aggravated to higher levels by the always sharp tongue of Spurrier.

Spurrier was so good at needling FSU that every time he opened his mouth nearly the entire Seminole nation had a seizure. What the Seminoles never figured out was that there was always method to Spurrier's madness. They thought it was Spurrier's ego speaking but Spurrier enjoyed being a distraction because that meant the pressure was eased off his own players. It worked pretty well on Phil Fulmer but only occasionally on FSU. Still, you couldn't blame him for trying.

The edge on the rivalry has diminished for a variety of reasons. Spurrier's no longer at Florida and neither Urban Meyer nor Ron Zook before him spent any time needling FSU's version of the ancient mariner. Meyer even speaks of Bobby in respectful tones. But it isn't a lack of verbal taunts that has taken away the edge --- it's the won-loss records of the past five years. The Gators and the Seminoles once looked like laser guided smart bombs on the college football radar. Now they look like a pair of SCUDS sailing off into the desert, far, far off the big target.

In the last five years, Florida has lost 20 football games and Florida State has lost 18. Florida only lost 22 games from 1990-2001 while FSU has lost more games in the last five years than in those 12 years combined.

Spurrier has remarked on more than one occasion that he doesn't think Florida fans ever understood just how difficult it is to win 10 games in a season much less AVERAGE 10 wins a year for 12 years. Florida State and Nebraska are the only schools in college football history that won more games than the Gators did during a 12-year stretch.

Because our memories are long, we recall the days when every reenactment of this go for the throat rivalry had real meaning on a national scale so when we have a year like this year --- or like the last few --- when both teams are not perched loftily among the nation's best everybody is wondering where we went wrong?

The expectations were certainly higher than 7-3 at the beginning of the season. When the Seminoles knocked off Miami on Labor Day and the Gators whacked Tennessee in game three fans of both teams thought anything less than a BCS bowl that had national championship implications was unacceptable. Well, welcome to unacceptable if your head was filled with those notions but even for those of you whose reality was somewhere below a number one ranking there are questions about why 7-3? And, when you've been to the national championship game, the thought of the Weedwacker for Florida or the Steel Belted Radial Bowl in Charlotte for FSU just doesn't raise the roof on excitement but you don't have BCS in your vocabulary when you lose three or four games.

One way to view the present situation is that both Florida and Florida State are simply battling their way through an inevitable reloading cycle that will eventually lead them to back to the yellow brick road of prosperity. You don't even have to be an optimist to believe that Florida and Florida State will be back. All you have to do is look at the amount of talent produced by the state's high schools and do the math. There are three big time schools in the state --- sorry South Florida, sorry UCF but you're still in diapers and you don't wear big boy pants --- and there is an abundance of Division I talent. If all three schools are smart, they should draw enough outstanding players from the Florida talent pool to make 10-win or better seasons standard issue.

But can all the issues be answered with recruiting? Is it as Ron Zook said, all about the Jessies and Joes and not so much about the Xs and Os?

Florida State's recruiting classes have been ranked among the best in the nation just about every year. The Seminoles aren't lacking in overall talent. Some might say there is more athletic talent on this roster than Bobby Bowden's ever had although it would be difficult to call this collection of offensive linemen either talented or athletic. The holes in the offensive line definitely need to be filled with an infusion of talented players.

FSU fans aren't dummies, either. They follow the recruiting rankings and they know what kind of talent stocks the roster. They also see that Jeffy is still the offensive coordinator and Daryl needs his other brother Daryl (if that went over your head see a Newhart rerun) to coach the quarterbacks. The real question in this soon to arrive offseason is will Bobby decide that five years of the Jeffy-Daryl experiment is enough and will he bring in real coaches to replace them?

At Florida, there are some very serious personnel issues. There are some outstanding players on the Florida roster, just not enough of them to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Meyer did not inherit a loaded team. He did inherit a few players capable of superstar production but he did not inherit the kind of overall talent and depth that allows you to overcome the string of injuries that the Gators have dealt with this year.

There have been some questions about Meyer's choice of assistants but these are the same assistants who endured struggles in year one at two previous outposts on the coaching trail only to see significant improvement in year two. Because Bowling Green and Utah were so much better in the second years of the Meyer regime, the coaching staff gets a Mulligan. History tells you that Meyer's faith in these guys will be justified but can the Gators bring in the kind of players that these coaches require to run the spread option offense? If the offense doesn't turn around in year two like it did at Bowling Green and Utah, will Meyer still be able to recruit the kind of outstanding athletes it takes to make it work?

It is because there is this abundance of questions that this Saturday's Florida-Florida State face smasher in The Swamp has tremendous importance. No, it's not the same as it was back when it was Stevie Wonder against Father Time. Back then both Florida and FSU were programs that had all the answers. Now these are programs with questions that outnumber the answers. Whoever wins will be the program that appears to have the answers. The loser will be the one that appears to have questions that beg to be answered.

A Florida State win would end a two-game losing streak and give the Seminoles reason for hope a week later when they play Virginia Tech in the ACC title game in Jacksonville. A win could lead to a three-game winning streak, a BCS bowl and a 10-win season. That would go a long way toward silencing the critics who cite Bobby's age and Jeffy's incompetence as serious factors in the decline of FSU. A loss, however, and the Seminoles go into the game with Virginia Tech on a three game losing streak with a shot at ending the year with five straight losses. A 7-6 record plunges FSU to depths unseen in 30 years and gives the program the appearance of one that has fallen and can't get up.

A Florida win would likely elevate the Gators to something other than the Weedwacker and would give UF a chance at a 9-win season, something that hasn't happened since 2001. Nine wins would be a nice bill of good health for the Florida program. It would also mark just the fourth time in school history that Florida has beaten its three chief rivals --- Tennessee, Georgia and FSU --- in the same season. A win and Meyer's critics give him a Mulligan till next year. A loss for Florida and it's Shreveport for the Weedwacker. A loss means the uphill climb to regain the luster lost since Spurrier left gets steeper. A loss and many of the same critics who were calling Meyer a genius a year ago will be saying he blew it in year one at Florida.

National championship implications helped to make this rivalry one of the best in all of college football for years. The championship implications are lacking Saturday but this time there is more at stake than just a championship. The winner of this game will give the appearance of a program that's truly on the upswing. The loser will look like a program that needs to do something quick to stop the decline.

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