ANTONYA ENGLISH and BOB HARIG
Miami is an intimidating team to face in the Orange Bowl, especially at night before a sellout crowd. Florida faces that challenge tonight.
No matter how you look at it, going into the Orange Bowl trying to pull off an upset over third-ranked Miami tonight won't be an easy task for the Florida Gators.
The Gators, ranked 21st, are 14-point underdogs and recent history isn't on their side. Though the teams don't play annually, Miami has won nine of the past 11 meetings, including 41-16 last year in Gainesville and 37-20 in the 2001 Sugar Bowl.
Florida takes a team with 45 new players on the road for the first time, into a place in which it hasn't won since 1987. And a place where the Hurricanes haven't lost since 1999, running up a 22-game winning streak.
So the Gators have everything to gain and nothing to lose, right?
"I don't look at it that way, but we do have an awful lot to gain," Florida coach Ron Zook said. "Our football team is excited to go down there. This is a great opportunity against a great football team. Everyone knows who Miami is, what they've done, and their record speaks for itself. This is a chance for us to show people where we are and to show ourselves what we can do."
The Orange Bowl is considered among the toughest places to play at night, particularly when it's sold out, as it will be tonight. Florida has practiced this week with loudspeakers in an attempt to simulate the kind of hostile atmosphere it expects to face.
"This is prime-time football," Miami defensive end Thomas Carroll said. "This is why you sign up for college football."
"I don't think there is a better place to play on Saturday night for the home team than in the Orange Bowl," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "It's a great atmosphere, it's electric. It ignites our football team, it ignites our people. But first of all you have to have great players and they have to play well."
A big part of the story line is the matchup between Miami quarterback Brock Berlin and his former Gator teammates, whom he faces for the first time since transferring last year.
"It's going to be interesting to see him out there as starting quarterback for Miami," Florida offensive guard Max Starks said. "He's playing against his friends, who are right now his enemies, so it will be an interesting game."
Miami has its share of new players, too, but also returns some veterans in key positions. The Hurricanes have all their defensive backs from last season, led by cornerback Antrel Rolle and safety Sean Taylor. Rolle returned an interception and a punt for touchdowns last week against Louisiana Tech.
Miami dominated Florida last year, putting up 508 yards of offense, including 306 on the ground on 46 carries. The Gator defense knows it will be under pressure.
"I don't think that we proved anything last week (holding San Jose State to three points)," UF free safety Daryl Dixon said. "To do that, you have to go out and play the best. Right now, because of the athletes they have, the best is Miami."
Florida will try to win using its rotating quarterback system of redshirt sophomore Ingle Martin and freshman Chris Leak. Problem is, neither has started a road game. Both saw significant college playing time for the first time last week and now prepare to face one of the best secondaries in the country.
"They aren't going to have the pocket presence of other (experienced) quarterbacks, and hopefully we will get a couple more sacks," Carroll said. "It really doesn't matter who plays quarterback because we are going to come at them the same way."
Still, Zook believes Florida has a better chance against the Hurricanes tonight for one reason.
"I think we are a better football team right now than we were a year ago today," he said. "Will that be good enough to go down there and win? I don't know but we will find out."
It isn't as if the Gators can't win in the Orange Bowl. Florida defeated Miami 35-20 in the Orange Bowl on Sept. 7, 1985. But that Miami loss was followed by a 58-game home winning streak that ended in 1994.
Many believe that because this isn't an annual game and because the Gators have been big underdogs the past two meetings, the rivalry has lost some of its luster.
The players don't subscribe to that theory. Pride is on the line. Miami and Florida are not scheduled to meet again until at least 2008, meaning somebody will have bragging rights for a long, long time.
"Coach Coker made it very clear to us in a team meeting that this is going to be the last chance for everyone on this team to play the Gators - unless in a bowl game," Miami center Joel Rodriguez said. "He made it clear that this game is not like the Florida State game or the Virginia Tech game, where if you lose, you can get them next year. This is it. If you lose this game, you have to hear the trash talking, the bragging, for the next six, seven eight years until we play them again. No one here wants to deal with that."