Florida Won The Battle Of Perceptions

As he shuffled out of The Swamp Saturday night, looking older than his 76 years and very, very tired, Bobby Bowden stopped in front of the Marching Chiefs, removed his ball cap and tossed it into the woodwind section where three squealing clarinetists battled to come down with the prize. You would have thought the guy had just caught a wedding bouquet the way he and his fellow woodwind players danced and gyrated.

About 60 yards away, Urban Meyer made his way into the tunnel that led to the Florida locker room. He looked younger than his 41 years, living the moment on an adrenaline rush and feeding off the energy of fans who shouted his name and the two-deep line of recruits on either side of the tunnel who were either chomping or bouncing off each other.

The game had ended 15 minutes earlier and The Swamp Reclamation Project was complete for the Gators. Florida's 34-7 victory was a stiletto to the heart of a Florida State program that finds itself in the very unfamiliar position of freefall. Nobody thought Florida would play that well just like nobody thought the Seminoles would roll over and die once they got their noses bloodied by a bunch of Gators who played like they wanted to prove they are back among the big boys after a three-year hiatus. Depending on your perceptions, the Seminoles played like either a bunch of has beens living in the past or wannabees who were on the big stage for the first time.

This game was indeed all about perceptions. Both Florida and Florida State entered the game needing to make a statement. Florida needed a win to prove that the transition year from the Zook Error to Urban Renewal has progressed rather nicely despite three speed bumps along the highway. Florida State needed to win because a third straight loss and fourth in the regular season would be a declaration that the football program lacks only a fork stuck in it to be declared done.

Those were the perceptions entering the game. When it was over the lasting image of Florida State was of a disorganized, ill-prepared, poorly disciplined team with a coach who looked --- well, using one of his own terms --- bumfuzzled. At game's end the lasting perception of Florida was a team playing with the growing confidence of a boxer who discovers he can keep landing that jab to the face until there's nothing but pulp where a nose used to be, coached by a young, enthusiastic leader who is very definitely in charge. Entering game week, the perception was that Florida and Florida State were pretty much on the same level plane. By game's end, the perception was that Florida is on its way to the top of the mountain while Florida State is in desperate need of a rescue chopper.

In the week leading up to the game, the Seminoles began losing the perception battle thanks to those honors graduates of the loose lips sink ships program at FSU, running back Lorenzo Booker and linebacker Ernie Sims.

Booker said, "We feel like they [Gators] don't belong on the field as us none of that, you know so it's it's more of like you know you guys think you can play with us? It's almost disrespectful that we have to go down to Gainesville and and and and and play these guys on Saturday. You know it'sa, it'sa, it'sa really I mean like a hatred rivalry like you gotta ugly stepsister that you just got to get out of your family portrait."

Sims guaranteed a Florida State victory.

If you're the Florida State of some six or seven years ago, winning big and always finishing in the nation's top four, those kind of comments are brushed aside and declared youthful indiscretions by confident kids from a team that will be in the hunt till the end for a national championship. When you've lost three games to unranked teams and the math tells you that you could finish the year on a five-game losing streak, the perception is of a team that's either out of control or living in the past.

Then there was the pregame incident which both added another negative perception to FSU and served to stoke the fire that was already burning in the collective bellies of the Florida Gators. As the Senior Day ceremony ended for the Gators, Florida State ran onto the field and most of the players headed for the sideline. A contingent of Seminoles, led by Booker, Sims and Fred Rouse, however, charged to the Gator seniors who were trying to walk off the field with their parents and family. The Seminoles began taunting and shouting and when coaches and officials tried to restrain them, instead of heading back to the sideline, they pushed forward, continuing their verbal assaults.

Instead of allowing Florida's seniors to enjoy a well-earned final moment in front of their fans, the Seminoles showed so much disrespect that the lasting perception is that the inmates run the asylum in Tallahassee. In comparison to drive-by shootings and some of the other high crimes and misdemeanors of FSU football players during the Bowden era, this pre-game incident was indeed nothing more than boys being boys. But the perceptions are different now. When the Seminoles were winning big incidents such as those were expected and tolerated. They aren't winning so much anymore --- 19 losses in the last five years with a shot at two more before this season mercifully comes to an end.

Then there was the game itself. Florida made all the plays on special teams, on defense and on offense. Burning desire met up with opportunity and the Gators capitalized. Special teams limited field position, the defense forced turnovers and the offense efficiently capitalized on getting the ball with a short field ahead. When Florida needed a big play, the Gators got one. When Florida State needed big plays, they got things like 15-yard personal foul penalties from Sims and Kyler Hall or Booker failing to make a foot on fourth down at the Florida 32.

The lasting perception for the 90,699 fans and the national television audience is that Florida sees the light at the end of the tunnel in Meyer's maiden voyage and that the future is filled with so much promise. If Florida finishes the season with a victory in a bowl game, Meyer and the Gators will have serious momentum going into season number two and everyone knows that year two at two previous outposts for Meyer was something very, very special.

For FSU, the lasting perception is that the light at the end of the tunnel is a speck in the distance and that the future is filled with so much uncertainty. What if the Seminoles get whacked by 40 or more points by Virginia Tech in Jacksonville Saturday? It could happen and no one should be surprised if the Hokies hang a 50 on the Seminoles. What happens if Florida State becomes the ugly stepsister that has to risk frostbite on the frozen tundra that is the Smurf Turf in Boise for its bowl game? Boise State will be the opponent there and the Broncos are more than capable of beating anyone on their home field in January, particularly a thin-blooded team from just north of the tropics. What if Bobby keeps Jeff Bowden as his offensive coordinator and Daryl Dickey as his quarterbacks coach one more year? What about Rouse who stated post-game that he wishes he had signed with Florida? What about Xavier Lee, who reportedly walked off the field at the end of the third quarter and never returned to the FSU sideline?

If that doesn't convince you it's all about the perceptions, then take a look at the 48 hours since the clock struck zero and the Gators had their statement win over FSU. Bryan Thomas (Zephyrhills), Jarred Fayson (Tampa Hillsborough), Jacques Rickerson (St. Augustine) and Brandon James (St. Augustine) have all made public commitments that they want to be Gators. FSU recruited all four of them but wasn't in the final mix. Thomas chose UF over Ohio State. Fayson picked Florida over Miami and Alabama. Rickerson chose the Gators over Auburn and James decided Florida over Penn State. All four of these kids saw exactly what they wanted to see Saturday both on the field and in the locker room where they were overwhelmed by the way Florida's underclassmen stood up one by one to talk about what it meant to win that game for the outgoing seniors.

There will be more commitments in the next few weeks and the Gators could end up with eight or ten commits playing in the US Army All-American Game in San Antonio on January 7. When you talk to the kids who are being recruited, the excitement about the Florida program begins with Meyer, whom they perceive as a coach who will be at Florida a long, long time. The perception of Meyer is that he cares about the kids, that he pushes them hard to make the grade both on the football field and in the classroom, and that he won't tolerate any nonsense off the field. It's called Urban's way or the highway and kids are buying into it.

With one game played in an electric atmosphere in Gainesville and on the bigger national stage because of the television broadcast, perceptions changed for both Florida and Florida State. For Florida, the perception is a program that has regained its momentum and has a bright future ahead of it under a young, dynamic coach. For Florida State, the perception is that of an elderly coach who needs to get a grip quickly on a program that shows all signs of slip sliding away.


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