A Chance For The Gators To Seize The State

Carpe diem. Seize the day. That should be the order of the day for the Gators when they face the Iowa Hawkeyes Monday in the Outback Bowl in Tampa because the implications of a victory for Florida stretch well beyond the obvious need to break out of the eight-win cycle that has plagued the program the last three years and well beyond the need to send the seniors out on a successful note.

Florida does need to get to the nine-win mark and does need to send these seniors out on the right foot but those goals only scratch the surface of what's at stake here. The Gators haven't won as many as nine games since Steve Spurrier's last year at the helm back in 2001. Only Todd McCullough among the handful of Gator seniors played in that game so there's an obvious need to break out of that lose the last game rut for the guys who spend four or five years busting their butts for the University of Florida.

Because this is a non-BCS bowl game, most observers don't consider the Outback Bowl a critical game but to understand what's at stake here, take a little stroll back down memory lane to 1984 and 1985. Florida had what amounts to a National Football League team in those days. Coach Charley Pell had recruited talent that was practically unmatched anywhere in the country to Florida before he got canned three games into the 1984 seasons when the Gators got put in the NCAA jailhouse for breaking a bunch of rules.

The Gators OWNED the School Out West in those days and if you don't believe it, just find someone who has an old tape of that 53-14 pillage and plunder of the Seminoles in 1983, the highlight reel game of a six-game win Florida win streak from 1981-86. Wilber Marshall knocked a couple of Seminole quarterbacks out of the game and Greg Allen, whom he taunted unmercifully before the game, took himself out rather than face the wrath of Wilber one more time.

Miami won the 1983 national championship, a year in which the Gators jacked up the Hurricanes by a 28-3 margin and the game really wasn't that close. It could have been much, much worse. Miami went into the Sugar Bowl ranked second and with a chance to win the national championship that year.

A look at Florida's starting offensive team in 1984 tells you about the talent level the Gators had in those days. The quarterback was Kerwin Bell, who would be an NFL backup before becoming a mega-star in the Canadian league where he won a couple of MVP awards. Tailbacks Lorenzo Hampton, Neal Anderson and John L Williams all were first round draft picks in the NFL. The wide receivers were Gary Rolle, Ray McDonald Sr., Frankie Neal and Ricky Nattiel. All four played in the NFL and Nattiel was a first rounder. Tight end Walter Odom played in the NFL. The Great Wall of Florida was made up of tackles Lomas Brown, Crawford Ker and Scott Trimble, guards Billy Hinson and Jeff Zimmerman and center Phil Bromley. Brown was a first rounder and all the others except Bromley, who got an NFL tryout, played at least a couple of years in the pros. And that was just the offense.

Probation cut the legs out of the program with scholarship cuts and it eliminated the Gators as a player for the South Florida talent pool, annually one of the richest recruiting areas in the nation. With Florida on probation, the School Out West revived its own stuck in the mud program which had the alums grumbling about Bobby Bowden. Had the Gators never gone on probation, it's highly doubtful the Seminoles would have ever had the kind of run they had from 1987-2000 in which they won two national championships.

Miami kept on keeping on but when Pell was at Florida, the Gators were at least the Hurricanes' equal and it showed on the playing field.

Since 1985, Miami has won four national championships and played for all the marbles on at least four other occasions. The School Out West has won a couple of national titles and played for the big trophy three other times. Florida got one national title in 1996 when the Gators whacked the School Out West in the Sugar Bowl, 52-20, and Florida played for the title in 1995, too. During that 12-year period when Steve Spurrier coached the Gators from 1990-2001 --- with the exception of 1995 and 1996 --- the Gators were usually either second or third in the state. Florida was clearly number three in the state in the three years Ron Zook headed the Gator program after Spurrier departed.

Even with the School Out West going through some hard times since 2000, Florida hasn't been in a position to really change the balance of power in the state until this year. The first signs that the balance of power was about to shift were during the regular season when Miami lost to the Seminoles in their season opener and then mysteriously lost to a bad Georgia Tech game. When Florida beat the Seminoles 34-7 in the regular season finale all signs pointed to a momentum shift that hasn't been seen since 1985 in the state.

If the door was left ajar by the regular season, it was kicked down Friday night when Miami experienced a China Syndrome meltdown against LSU in the Peach Bowl. Miami's 40-3 loss to LSU is a sign of things to come in Coral Gables. The never-ending well of talent has just about run dry and there are serious questions that Larry Coker can bail water fast enough to keep this sinking ship afloat without wholesale changes in the coaching staff and offensive philosophy. Compounding the issues in Coral Gables is school prez Donna Shalala's insistence that UM becomes the next Stanford. Athletes can't get into school at UM without a minimum 820 on the SAT. That doesn't sound like much but it's a huge factor that has forced a lot of talented players who used to be locks for UM to go elsewhere.

The School Out West meanwhile is playing in the Octogenarian Bowl --- oops, the Orange Bowl --- against Penn State in a game that will probably set an NCAA record for matching up two coaches who served nobly beside Teddy Roosevelt when the Rough Riders stormed up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. The Seminoles are the champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and indeed, they are in a BCS Bowl game, but this is window dressing for a program that is in retreat.

This is a must game for the Seminoles who are trying to avoid their second five-loss season since 2000. They've lost 19 games since 2000 and that is more losses than they experienced in 1987-2000 combined. A loss to Penn State and they'll fall out of the top 25 in the final poll for the first time since 1986, back when the Gators were just starting to feel the effects of probation. A win won't be a signal that the Seminoles are back --- after all they still have Jeffy as their offensive coordinator --- but it will be a sign that at least they aren't free-falling like Miami. A loss and the talk shows will be all about how Bobby Bowden is too old and how Jeffy is proof that some village somewhere is missing its idiot.

If the Gators beat Iowa Monday, then there will be the perception that the Gators are the team on the rise while the School Out West --- no matter if they win or lose --- is spinning its wheels and Miami is sinking to depths unseen in many, many years. A Florida win over Iowa combined with the win over the School Out West gives the perception that the Gators are the dominant program in the state and coached by a young, dynamic leader who can win and attract the best talent even with his insistence of a team made up of tough guys on the field and Boy Scouts away from football. No matter if the School Out West wins or loses, the perception is that Bobby Bowden is very, very old and no longer the sharpest tool in the shed. The perception at Miami is that Larry Coker is a nice enough guy but incapable of winning without talent recruited by Butch Davis.

Florida's positive perception is showing up biggest on the recruiting trail where Coach Urban Meyer is on the verge of one of the best incoming classes in recent history. Ever since the win over the School Out West back on Thanksgiving Weekend, it's almost as if the recruits are sprinting to get on the Gator train before it leaves the station. Since that win, the Gators have attracted 15 commitments with an average star rating (by Scout.com) of 4.2 out of 5.0.

This is an opportunity that hasn't been around since Florida went on probation back in 1984. Florida had the best talent in the country when the NCAA put the Gators in jail. Florida got the cream of the crop in the state up until that point and the Gators were serious players every year for the best talent in south Florida. Ever since then, it's been a continuous uphill battle for the Gators who have been to the top a couple of times but haven't consistently maintained the perception that they are the best team in the state.

With recruiting going so well, the only thing missing is the bowl win to further enhance the perception that the Gators are on the verge of taking over the state. A win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl and the pendulum swings mightily in Florida's favor, an impressive ending to Coach Urban Meyer's first year at Florida. Opportunities like this don't come along often. It took the Gators 20 years to get into position to truly dominate the state again and if they don't take advantage of this situation, there's no telling how long it will be before they have this chance again. The word of the day must be carpe diem! Seize the day!

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