© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Spain versus Portugal. Now, that was a rivalry.
Back in the day, that was the series that mattered. Remember the year da Gama won the Heisman? Remember the year Cortez threw the Hail Mary? Remember how Spain recruited Magellan right from under Portugal's nose?
Yep, those were the days, all right.
How about Norway-Ireland? There was a time when the Vikings met the Celts, and the BCS paid attention. Who can forget Lee Corso, just before the battle, putting on the Viking helmet?
Then there was Greece-Troy, where Greece won a title despite Achilles' heel injury. There were the Ottomans vs. the Byzantines, the Romans vs. the Spartans, the cattlemen vs. the sheepherders and, of course, the Osmonds vs. the Jacksons.
Once, long ago, they all meant something. By golly, when those guys got together, the rest of the world paid attention.
I mention all of this, of course, because I am sitting in Doak-Campbell Stadium, and the Peach Bowl has broken out in front of me.
This is what is left of the Florida-FSU rivalry. Overnight, it has turned into Indiana-Purdue. Or Clemson-South Carolina. A couple of more losses per team, and it could be Baylor-Rice.
Once, the Gators and the 'Noles had the most relevant rivalry going. Oh, maybe other rivals detested each other as much, and perhaps they wanted to win as badly. But for the past 16 seasons, no rivalry has been played with as much on the line.
You want a national championship contender? You want a Heisman favorite? This is where you came to find it. These days? Heck, Hulk Hogan and Alf have a better rivalry going.
For a change, Florida and FSU are small change. They're two mediocre teams that came into this game trying their best to apply ointment to disappointment. It's like going to Daytona and watching a race between a Vega and Pinto. It's the Slow-But-Ahead-of-You Bowl.
Hey, it happens. Once, when your grandfather wore short pants, TCU and SMU was the battle of the titans. Once, Southern Cal and UCLA divvied up the national titles and the Heismans. Once, Brylcreem sold a lot of hair oil.
College football is like Europe. A lot of different empires have taken their turns running things. Think of Minnesota as Denmark. Think of Colorado as Austria. Think of Clemson as Prussia. Florida vs. FSU? It's England vs. France. They both still sound relevant. They just aren't.
And so the question begs asking. Is this the way it's going to be for a while? Are these teams yesterday's dynasties?
That's the real issue here, isn't it? How do the 'Noles and the Gators get their relevancy back? How do they keep from becoming, say, Fordham?
Here's a scary notion for you. From the looks of things, next year's FSU-Florida game isn't going to be a big deal, either.
The year after? We'll see.
Look, it isn't just that Florida lost three games this year coming in and FSU lost four. It's that each had to scramble and gasp to keep from losing that many more. There are rivalries where you can throw out the records of the teams involved; this is one where both sides wish you would.
That's the worst thing about the mirrored collapses of Florida and FSU. It didn't look like a fluke at either place. This wasn't because of injury or ill fate or bad officiating. These were two teams that began the season overrated (FSU was third, Florida sixth), and then sank to their current levels.
This wasn't a football season; this was a casting call for the remake of Ordinary People. If this game meant any less, they'd play it in Montana.
What, then, do these programs need to do before the nation cares what they do?
Let's be serious for a moment. Neither program is going to fall off the planet. Both have too much money, facilities, tradition. Both operate in a great state in which to recruit.
Both programs, however, appear to be at a crossroad. That's not unusual. It's happened to a lot of college football's brand names. In Nebraska, or Michigan, or Alabama, or at Penn State, no one is worried about these programs. Even Miami and Oklahoma had some lost years.
Start with Florida. First, the Gators have to decide if they have the right coach. I know, I know. It was Ron Zook's first season, and there has been pressure. But ask yourself one question: Did the Gators overachieve or underachieve this year?
I don't want to pick on Zook, a good guy, but he still looks like a coach in training. For instance, what was all this about silencing his players this week? If that worked, the greatest player in college history would have been Marcel Marceau.
Look, it's the last game of a bad season. It's against FSU. Do you think the players needed quiet time to reflect? Please. At least the teams agree on this. They have the right to remain silent.
Florida needs to be a stronger, more physical football team. It needs to recruit players accordingly.
As for FSU, Bowden is 73. A year such as this makes people notice, and the rumors of when he might retire have begun anew. Bowden needs to make sure he has the energy to make this go again.
FSU has to have more muscle on defense, more playmakers on offense. Why they don't, despite all those seasons at the top of all those recruiting lists, is a mystery. Also, they have to find a quarterback the coaching staff trusts, and a coaching staff that Bowden trusts. Ask yourself: When did Chuck Amato and Mark Richt become Einstein and Copernicus? Since FSU started to lose without them, that's when.
In other words, there is work to do before this game becomes important again.
Eventually, of course, it will be.
Not only that, but Norway will rise again. You just wait.