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Unrivaled

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- It's Rivalry Weekend, and college football games will be played all across the nation today in which the opponents do not care much for one another.

How nice.

There's the Apple Cup in Washington, the Civil War in Oregon and the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket in Indiana. There's Clemson and South Carolina, Ohio State and Michigan. All perfectly fine rivalries steeped in regional animosity.

But when all of those games are over, one rivalry tops them all -- a game so big it defies labeling: Florida-Florida State. Or, if you prefer, Florida-State-Florida.

A rivalry, unrivaled.

"I think people in the Swahili tribes in Africa are tuned into the Florida-Florida State rivalry," UF senior quarterback Jesse Palmer said. "It's big. Families break up over this game."

It's a nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, high-stepping, backyard-brawling, name-calling, blood-boiling, finger-pointing, mass-appealing, season-ending football game. Oh, and the winner usually gets a shot at the national championship.

So, how do you like your stakes?

No. 4 Florida (9-1) plays No. 3 Florida State (10-1) at 8 p.m. today at Doak Campbell Stadium, the 13th consecutive meeting between the schools as Top 10 teams. The winner stays alive in the chase for the national championship and claims bragging rights for the next year. The loser . . . well, let's not go there.

"If there's something more exciting or a bigger rivalry in the country, I want to see it," FSU senior quarterback Chris Weinke said. "Look at the track record of the winner of this game playing for the national championship. I don't think there's another rivalry that even comes close to this."

Five times in the past six years the winner of this game has played for the national championship. Once, both teams did. The only exception was 1997, when No. 10 UF denied No. 2 FSU a shot at the title with a stunning 32-29 upset in the final two minutes.

College football at its best.

"To me, it's like car racing," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "If you want hot rods, go catch the Alabama-Auburn game. But if you want to see jets run, you've got to check Florida State-Florida. Don't tell Alabama and Auburn I said that, of course."

With all due respect to Dubya and the Veep, players in a high-stakes contest that also could be decided today in Tallahassee, UF-FSU is better. Presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore could only play, at best, every four years.

UF-FSU yields annual returns.

"It's almost like a little national championship in itself," UF offensive tackle Mike Pearson said.

Familiarity breeds contempt

And, to think, it took a bunch of lawmakers to get the fun rolling. Florida and Florida State wanted no part of each other through the mid-1950s, but legislators thought it would be fun for the schools -- located barely two hours apart -- to play every season.

A bill introduced by Sen. Nick Connor requiring the schools to play was defeated in April 1955, but a few years later Gov. LeRoy Collins suggested to UF president Wayne Reitz that it might be a good idea for UF and FSU to get together on their own.

They played for the first time in 1958.

Like any good rivalry, this one is built on bitterness. Almost everyone playing for these two teams knows each other. They grew up together, played high school football with and against each other. They run into each other at shopping malls in the summer. On a hate scale, from 1 to 10, UF's Pearson rates this game an 11.

"You have buddies up there on the team," Pearson said. "All the fans back home, you have some for the Gators and some for the Seminoles. You just want to kick their butts and have the bragging rights for a year. We don't like them; they don't like us. It's no mystery to anybody."

Two years ago in Tallahassee, the butt-kicking started early when a brawl erupted at the 50-yard line during warmups. Punches were thrown. An FSU assistant got a black eye. Players were ejected. Florida quarterback Doug Johnson winged a football in the direction of Bowden, for which he later apologized.

So sorry.

Then, of course, there are the polar personalities of the two head coaches: the affable Bowden and the occasionally grating Spurrier. The two refused to be in the same room together after 1996, when Spurrier accused Bowden and his staff of instructing their players to hit UF quarterback Danny Wuerffel late.

Both say bygones are bygones, that their relationship is good. Of course, they rarely see each other.

"I'm fascinated by him," Bowden said. "People would think, "Oh, they can't stand each other.' That's not true. When I'm around him, I enjoy him. Forgive me, Lord."

Best of the best

What truly sets this game apart from all other rivalries are the national implications of virtually every meeting. Today is the sixth time the schools will meet as Top 5 teams. In 1996, No. 1 Florida at No. 2 Florida State marked just the fourth time in college football history that two undefeated teams met in the regular-season finale.

FSU won 24-21.

Barely a month later, the two met again in the Sugar Bowl, the second time in the 1990s that bowl officials demanded a post-season recount. The Gators prevailed 52-20 for their only national title. The schools played 12 times in the decade, more than any two schools.

"They play in the ACC and we play the SEC," Spurrier said. "And our records are usually pretty similar coming into this game. One loss usually leaves you in pretty good shape late in the year. Two losses puts you with a whole bunch of other teams. That makes it a big game."

With big-time talent. No fewer than 65 former Florida and Florida State players currently are on NFL rosters.

"You don't have to explain anything," said ESPN analyst Lee Corso, an FSU grad. "Just say it's Florida State-Florida and anybody in athletics knows it is the best athletes in the nation in one game. Great athletes making great plays."

With everyone watching.

"Florida and Florida State are two of the best teams in the country," UF senior linebacker Daryl Owens said. "This is a low-down dirty game. Somebody has to win it and, unfortunately, someone has to lose it."

- Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report.

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