I was thankful for a great many things yesterday–some sports-related; many not. Among those things I was thankful for was the return of the rivalry. I should clarify that before fans from both sides scream foul. When the Florida Gators face the Florida State Seminoles, the rivalry that comes along with it is always present. It wouldn’t matter if these teams had losing records. A rivalry of this kind is intense regardless of what the outcome means to the larger landscape of college football. That said, for many years it has taken a hit due to one or both of the programs underachieving. This season, that is not the case and, therefore, I’m thankful.
The Gators and ‘Noles enter Saturday’s game a combined 20-2. Not only do both teams have identical 10-1 records, they are both firmly (well, that could be argued) among the top 10 in the nation. Florida sits at No. 4 in the current BCS Standings thanks largely to the computer polls. FSU, on the other hand, holds the No. 10 spot due to those same polls. Let’s take a deeper dive, shall we?
The Florida Gators ranking line reads like this: No. 5 in the Harris Poll, No. 6 in the Coaches Poll, five computer rankings of No. 2 and one of No. 6. The computers have the Gators behind only the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, which pushes Florida to No. 4 overall. Then look at the Florida State line: No. 6 in the Harris Poll, No. 5 in the Coaches Poll and computer rankings ranging between No. 15 and NR (that’s right, the ‘Noles are unranked in one of the computer polls). That hurts FSU in a number of ways and is what pushes them down to No. 10. All but one computer ranks the Clemson Tigers–a team the Seminoles beat–ahead of Florida State and you have to go all the way down to No. 18 to find a team with a lower computer average. FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher may have been on to something when he spewed venom at the BCS.
But he only has half of an argument. Yes, the computers are screwing FSU to a point. As orange and blue as my vision is, I can admit that. However, there’s a little thing called strength of schedule that has to be taken into account. It’s not Fisher’s fault his ‘Noles play in the ACC where the level of competition isn’t always high. That’s not the fault of the FSU players either. He does have to live with it though. He also has to live with the fact that his team lost to a team they shouldn’t have–the NC State Wolfpack–that is now 6-5. Florida State would be either No. 1 or No. 2 right now if that hadn’t happened, but it did and Fisher has to live with the No. 10 ranking.
That doesn’t mean they won’t beat our mighty Gators tomorrow. The fact that FSU lost to NC State doesn’t necessarily give Florida an advantage either. Flip a coin and take your pick. What we’ll see if anyone’s guess, as it has been with most Gators’ games this season. There’s plenty to expect, but only one team will come out of this 11-1 and the best guess is to say something surprising will happen.
On both sides, we have elite defenses. Defenses that have won games for their respective teams. Defenses that will probably rule this matchup. Then we have the offenses and a whole lot of looking away from the television. I fondly remember the days when this game was always of national importance and with that came excitement over the offenses. The Florida offense would get the ball and you would move to the edge of your seat. Today, there are times when you’d rather go to the bathroom than see another three-and-out. On paper, Florida State holds the advantage in terms of offensive production. The problem with that is that you can throw away everything on paper from this entire college football season. Do I really need to prove that to you? Okay, here goes.
First of all, the Gators are 10-1. There’s joy in that record, but also genuine shock. The nation’s top team–the Alabama Crimson Tide–lost to one of the SEC’s newcomers in a game that didn’t feel as close as the score. Notre Dame is 11-0 and No. 1 only one season after I watched the USF Bulls beat them in South Bend. Florida State is 10-1 and NOT in the top five. Boise State has two losses and for once no one is talking about the Broncos. Only one week ago, we were discussing a National Championship featuring Oregon and Kansas State (?!?). And of the top 23 teams in the BCS Standings, only two have more than two losses this late in the season. Basically that means whatever the outcome on Saturday, it wouldn’t be surprising.
I hope for a Gators win, but I’m nervous. I’ve watched a determined team put together an impressive record with several notable victories and a lone loss to the nation’s No. 3 team. I’ve also watched an offense that looked to be improved early in the season, only to become something of a train wreck over the last month. I don’t know what to make of tomorrow because I don’t know what to make of the offense Brent Pease is attempting to get off the ground. Jeff Driskel will play, but I can’t be sure if that gives Florida a better chance than if Jacoby Brissett was taking snaps. The Gators have a primary running back and have run him ragged toward what will be the first 1,000-yard season since 2004, but he can’t do it alone. And, as always, there’s the offense line that we’re never really sure about. Put it all together and all I can manage is a shrug.
On Saturday, that shrug could turn into a raucous cheer or absolute anger. Time will tell on that end. The rivalry feels right again though and I am excited. Nervous, but excited. These teams should be playing for more than mid-tier bowl games. The rivalry means more to fans on both sides than that. Saturday will give us another chapter and another reason to hate each other. It’s part of what makes being a Florida fan or an FSU fan great. Both have the same philosophy for the game (even if we only promote it for one): just win.