Despite the college football season nearing the end of its regular season, there is still plenty of intriguing on field action to be seen this week. There are still games that could determine the BCS Championship game but, perhaps more important to the majority of college football fans, it’s rivalry week. The week where, no matter how good or bad your team’s season has gone, it can all be turned on its head by the result of your final regular season game against your biggest (and more often that not in-state) rival. A perfect example of this dynamic is exemplified in one of my favorites rivalry games of all time. It took place in Gainesville, FL on this weekend in 1997. Florida was coming off its first National Championship but had suffered through a disappointing 3 loss campaign while Florida State had run roughshod over the ACC en route to an undefeated season and the #1 ranking in the country. Despite the game being played at The Swamp, few people gave the Gators a chance. Their offense had struggled so badly down the stretch that Steve Spurrier had resorted to rotating QBs on every other play. Seriously. Think about how ludicrous that is for a second. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the the QBs in this rotation was an overweight walk-on named Noah Brindise. Despite all this, Florida hung with the Seminoles all day, largely on the strength of a monstrous performance by Fred Taylor and an inspired defensive gameplan from Bob Stoops (in his final game as the Gators Defensive Coordinator). Still, with just over a minute left in the 4th quarter, the Gators found themselves down to FSU with the ball deep in their own territory. Then this happened:
I will never forget that game, or the scene on University Ave. after that game. Was the Gator season, which began with Florida as the #1 ranked team in the country, a disappointment? Absolutely. However, none of that mattered that day. We had ruined Florida State’s perfect season and dashed their National Title hopes. That’s what makes rivalry games so great. It all comes down to hatred. Hatred for the other school. Hatred for all the fans of that school that you see everyday. Friends, co-workers, and in my case, family. It’s bragging rights for the next 364 days. And believe me, those bragging rights matter. After that game in 1997, Florida didn’t beat Florida State again for the next 4 years. Those 4 years were miserable. Dealing with FSU fans is always a chore, but when they're routinely stomping you out and finishing in the top 3 in the country, well, then it's just unbearable. Just as last year was miserable, when FSU finally broke a 5 year losing streak to Florida and put the topping on the shit sundae that was the Gators’ 2010 season.
I had planned to write exclusively about the Florida-FSU game today, but then a “funny” thing happened…Urban Meyer decided to get back into coaching (allegedly) and accept the head coaching position at Ohio State University. If you follow me on Twitter (@BadNewsHughes), you’ve already read my quick take on Meyer’s new position, the reaction of many Gator fans, as well as my own personal reaction. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, here it is:
Urban Meyer is a football coach. As he said earlier this week, it is who he is. So anybody who expected a wildy successful, deeply competitive football coach to retire in his mid-40s and stay retired for the rest of his days was (and is) kidding themselves. Meyer was always coming back to coaching.
Now, did I expect him to come back to coaching within a year of his retirement at the University of Florida? No. Yet, I also didn’t expect Jim Tressel to get himself fired by Ohio State. Jobs like the Head Coach at Ohio State University don’t come along very frequently. Meyer knows this and knew he might never get the opportunity to take over a top flight program that wasn’t seriously down in the dumps again (kind of like Florida where, despite a couple mediocre seasons by Ron Zook, the cupboard wasn't bare and there was potential for a quick turnaround and ascendance back to the top of the SEC).
In Meyer’s mind (I’m guessing), he HAD to take the job at Ohio State. As I said earlier this week, I hold no ill will toward a man who came to Florida, revived a program suffering a slow decline and quickly turned it around to the tune of two BCS Championships and another BCS Bowl win in a span of five years. I, unfortunately, am not in the majority of Gator fans when it comes to my feelings toward Meyer. Most are some mixture of angry, bitter, betrayed and just about any other emotion you’d associate with a spurned lover. They point to his grounds for retirement (his health & his family) and find it laughable that his health could suddenly be so much better, or that his “year off” with his family (a year off that included plenty of time on the road working for ESPN) with his family was enough to satiate the need to “watch his kids grow up” as he stated last December. Do I believe Meyer’s health was failing? Yes. Even before his first retirement shortly after the 2009 SEC Championship, there had been signs that all wasn’t right with Meyer. It is my opinion that the emotional, mental & physical grinder that is coaching a top tier SEC program was too much for a man of Meyer’s competitive nature to handle. For example: Look at Arkansas and Bobby Petrino. The coach who just had his team’s doors blown off in Baton Rouge yesterday. Petrino led Arkansas to it’s first Sugar Bowl since 1976 last year, and within a game of the SEC Championship game this year, all while only losing 3 games. Total. Yet, somehow, neither team was even considered one of the top 2 teams in their own division. Another example is the 2009 Florida team. They won the Sugar Bowl, they won 13 games. Yet, they lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship and missed out on a chance to defend their BCS Championship. Despite a season that would go down as the greatest in the history of 98% of the Division I Football programs in America, Florida’s 2009 season was considered a failure by most fans, and more than likely, Meyer himself.
The Big Ten, while a storied conference, doesn’t present that same set of obstacles. There are no LSUs, Alabamas, Georgias or Tennessees or Auburns. If you’re at Ohio State, you have the best facilities, the most money and the most cache of any program. By far. You have to worry about Wisconsin and, possibly (depending on Brady Hoke’s rebuilding job) Michigan as challengers to your elite status. Meyer’s walking into a very favorable set of circumstances. As long as the NCAA doesn’t absolutely nuke the football program for the transgressions of the Tressel Era, Meyer will have the Buckeyes competing for a BCS Title by the time stud freshman QB Braxton Miller is a senior. And when that happens, there will be thousands upon thousands of Gator fans who hate him every step of the way.
One factor in the overly bitter reaction of Florida fans to news of Meyer accepting the Ohio State job is the disappointment of the past two seasons. Florida fans, like most fans of top SEC programs, are very spoiled. Few, if any, fanbases had it better than Florida from 2006-2009 (4 National Titles in football and basketball). Then last year, the wheels came off. Big time. It started with the loss in the 2009 SEC Championship game and continued all throughout last year as we saw a top 5 preseason ranked football team struggle through a 5 loss season while seemingly completely rudderless on offense. It certainly didn’t help matters that our former backup QB Cam Newton was busy leading Auburn to a BCS Title and a Heisman Trophy of his own. Don’t think for one second that Gator fans aren’t a little extra salty about all this as a result of yet another very subpar seasoning 2011, as well as a general feeling that Meyer may have left the cupboard a little bare and ran out of town to avoid tarnishing his stellar legacy and overall career record.
Despite all the news surrounding Meyer this week, his former school still has a game to play today. Against their biggest in-state rival. And though this game may not have the same cache attached to it nationally as it often has in the past, it’s still plenty big in the Sunshine State, for a variety of reasons. Sure, bragging rights are on the line but it goes deeper than that. While Florida’s season has been disappointing by any standards, it was FSU that was picked as a top 5 team in the preseason. After a promising start, that has all fallen to the wayside, finally hitting rock bottom last week in the form of a 14-13 home loss to Virginia. If Florida were to win this game, both FSU & Florida would finish the season 7-5, something that would certainly not go unmentioned by Gator fans over the next 364 days. Second, at perhaps more importantly, is the impact this game has on recruiting. It’s no secret that the state of Florida is the most fertile recruiting ground in all of American. It's also no secret that these two schools compete for most of the same players year-in, year-out. This year is no different. In fact, 12 of the top 100 HS players (according to Rivals.com) will be attending tonight’s game in The Swamp. If winning this game helps sway even a couple top tier prospects to Florida or FSU, it could dramatically effect the future fortunes of two programs with just as many questions as answers going forward. The immediate future of these two programs is still very much up in the air and there will be 18 year old high school seniors in the stands tonight with the power to dramatically effect these futures.
The final reason this game still looms so large is legacy. A win over FSU (or Florida depending on your view of things) can forever change the way a player is viewed by their fan base (see: Outzen, Marcus). And I believe that John Brantley deserves a win over FSU. Brantley is a Gator legacy (Dad played linebacker and was a captain at Florida in the 70s, his Uncle was a starting QB at Florida) who chose to come play at Florida despite the system Urban Meyer runs being as ill-suited to his strengths as a QB as any system in college football (save for maybe Georgia Tech). He patiently waited behind Tim Tebow for 3 years. And then…everything blew up. He became the Gators fan’s whipping boy during the tragically terrible 2010 season despite the fact that he was hardly the only problem. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was battered every single game by SEC defenses due to a porous O-Line and a system which asked him to run far too many option plays for his particular skill set. Brantley has his flaws, no doubt, but he’s taken more of a mental, physical and physcological beating than any player I can ever remember at the University of Florida. Even this year, he nearly lost his leg to Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw. An injury so sever that it would've caused many QBs to miss the rest of the season. Yet there he was, only to return 3 weeks later starting for Florida against Georgia. Even today, he's still barely able to jog. His ankle is so bad that he’s been forced to work almost exclusively out of the shotgun (or the pistol in recent weeks) because he’s unable to drop back on his badly damaged ankle. I guarantee you he’ll end up having surgery on that ankle once the season ends. And all this doesn't even begin to address the innumerable amount of brutal hits he’s taken due to yet another underperforming offensive line and a sadly pedestrian group of WRs. Put simply, John Brantley has been a warrior for the University of Florida through some of the roughest times the football program has seen since the late 1980s, Yet, he’s never complained. Not once. He deserves a chance to walk off the field of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with the home crowd showering him with applause. He deserves a chance to have his “One Shining Moment” (wrong sport, I know). And I’ll be watching, hoping, & praying that he get it tonight.