The Seminoles seek to keep their BCS rating high while the Gators seek redemption and to salvage their pride by winning in Tallahassee for the first time since 1986.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH and BRIAN LANDMAN
Published November 20, 2004
Kenny Parker, a fifth-year senior defensive end for Florida, was 4 years old the last time the Gators defeated Florida State in Tallahassee. Freshman linebacker Brandon Siler was 11 months. Trying to win at Doak Campbell Stadium has become a heavy burden, one of many the Florida players will carry tonight when they meet the Seminoles in the annual intrastate showdown.
During the past decade, this game usually has meant much more on the national scale. Championships, major bowl games.
None of that is on the line tonight, yet in many ways, it's no less significant for the Gators. Ron Zook was fired at midseason and is coaching his final regular-season game. For all the players know, it could be their last time with him because he hasn't said whether he will coach the bowl game. Most on this team have never beaten Florida State, and the few who have were freshmen or sophomores who saw little or no action in the 37-13 win in 2001. Today, it is a team most known for losing to a three-win Mississippi State team and getting its coach fired. Tonight, it has a chance to become something much more.
"I think when people think back to the 2004 Florida football team, if we are able to go on and win this game ... they are going to remember something special about this group also," Zook said. "A team that went through some adversity and kept playing and kept getting better and kept competing and kept fighting and wouldn't take no for an answer.
"I want to believe that there are going to be people that are going to look back and are going to be proud of this football team. And that's kind of one of the things that I've told them. For whatever reasons, it happened and let's just get ourselves ready to go and finish out strong."
Florida State is a seven-point favorite, but both sides agree that matters little. FSU coach Bobby Bowden said he likes it when more is at stake, but he realizes he'll face a Florida team with a lot to play for. And his team has its own need to win.
"We're still fighting to get back to the top, and we sure need to win this game to do it," Bowden said. "And I know that coach Zook, this is his last regular-season game. You can imagine how bad he wants to win it and how bad his boys want to win it for him. It'll still have that pressure on us."
FSU clings to hopes it will share the ACC title then claim the league's automatic berth to the Bowl Championship Series by winning a tiebreaker. Such a scenario depends on the final BCS standings, so the Seminoles know a win is a must to maintain their lead over Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia.
Florida has no such hopes. It took the Gators nine games to become bowl eligible, and the BCS isn't even in their conversations. They've lost three games in the final minute and been the talk of the nation because of their problems.
Pride, a chance to send their coach out with one of the biggest wins of his brief tenure at Florida and getting the monkey off their backs are the main topics of conversation.
"Just beating FSU period is a dream of mine," junior center Mike Degory said. "It's been a long time. Besides my redshirt year when I didn't play, I haven't beaten FSU. If it comes out (tonight) that we carry him off on our shoulders, we did pretty well."
The Florida State players will have something to say about that. They know what's at stake for the Gators. They understand how much a win would mean. They feel the same way about their program.
"I can't describe how fired up I am for this game," sophomore quarterback Wyatt Sexton said. "Any true Florida State fan knows the type of hatred that a true Seminole fan has for the Gators, and I share that same passion. I can't wait to play."
Last season's game was marred by controversial calls and remembered for Florida's State last-minute win in Gainesville. For Florida, it's a chance to right a ship that has been rocked all season.
"I don't know (if winning) can make up for everything. What's behind us is behind us," senior linebacker Travis Harris said. "But this is the last regular-season game for a lot of us. We want to go out winning.
"We've been so close the last few years, and we didn't pull it out. We talked about it in training camp that we want to be at a point at the end of the season to beat these guys. If we can pull it out, it would mean a lot to this team."