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FSU is turning the series tide

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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- In the first place, the Florida Gators didn't want to play Florida State. Forty-two years ago, the Gainesville guys were forced, by state legislative decree, to play ambitious Seminoles whose football history was still in wet cement, having begun in 1947.

Florida won a 21-7 inaugural at Gainesville. After a six-pack of games, the Gators had a 5-0-1 hammerlock on Florida State. 'Noles unquestionably suffered from little-brother complex. There was too much "poor little us" talk as FSU scrambled to catch up to the big kid.

It would take a generation.

There was a flash of Tallahassee joy in 1964 when FSU finally put a 16-7 smack on the Gators. But it would be aberration, not tide-turner. By 1976, when Bobby Bowden became a 33-26 coaching victim in his first Sunshine State territorial rumble, the Seminoles were a sickly 2-16-1 and the Gators had ruled nine straight.

One-sided as a movie set.

"If we were ever going anywhere, we had to start battling Florida on more even terms," Bowden recalls. "They were wiping us out. I always saw that goal as the catalyst for Florida State moving toward true football respectability."

Nobody, not even Bowden and status-hungry FSU, surely not the Gators who still viewed the series as a necessary evil, dared to be so nonsensical as to suggest the young and lopsided rivalry had any chance of evolving into America's biggest and best.

Beginning in 1977, Bowden won four in a row against the Gators, but then his 'Noles dropped six consecutive to Florida. That brings the fuss to 1987, when Florida State began losing all its froggy warts, blossoming as a prince. Thirteen seasons later, it is yet to subside.

Just check the numbers.

Don't take the Bowden sizzle for granted. No, it's far too magnificent for any quick study. Bobby's annual records beginning in 1987 have been 11-1, 11-1, 10-2, 10-2, 11-2, 11-1, 12-1, 10-1-1, 10-2, 11-1, 11-1, 11-2, 12-0 and 10-1.

Over the span, a 151-18-1 masterpiece.

If those digits need just a touch more dazzle, consider the final Associated Press rankings of Florida State from 1987 through kickoff Saturday night: 2-3-3-4-4-2-1-4-4-3-3-3-1-3.

Simply the best.

Miami might argue, but this could be college football's most remarkable run ever. While the Hurricanes won four national championships between 1983-91, the FSU streak is at least as astonishing due to no down years.

From elsewhere, historically, you will hear powerful long-run cases presented by Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan, Southern California and others. But has there truly been a 14-season stretch better than Bowden's?

Meanwhile, in Gainesville, after the Gators got badly bruised in the late '80s by NCAA probation, coming from Charley Pell's slippery coaching spell, there was notable on-field suffering. But then, in 1990, the ultimate UF football hero, Heisman Trophy quarterback Steve Spurrier, was brought home to coach and rekindle the Gators.

Oh, baby, the Nuclear Nineties.

Before long, Florida was stronger than it had ever been. Best in a football history born in 1906. Saturdays rocked on Florida Field, sellouts of 85,000 becoming the norm.

After having zero Southeastern Conference trophies on its shelves, UF amassed a quick five. A national championship came in 1996 as Spurrier became the first Heisman winner to coach one of his pupils, Danny Wuerffel, to the most prestigious individual trophy in U.S. sports.

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, the 'Noles were doing even better. They joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992 and have won the league championship every year since. National titles were bagged in 1993 and 1999. 'Noles had a Heisman Trophy quarterback of their own, Charlie Ward, in '93.

Here's the incredible point: While the Gators were becoming the best they had ever been, Florida was being outdone by the 'Noles they so wanted to avoid back in 1958. In the 10 seasons of Spurrier vs. Bowden, going into Saturday night's latest monumental bout, the Bobby edge was 7-4-1, counting two rematches in the Sugar Bowl.

It's become an every-year deal, the Gators-'Noles hostilities having enormous national impact, plus the unique effect on boosters of the two schools that sit just two hours apart in northern Florida.

As good as Florida has been under Spurrier's leadership, the Gators find themselves outdoing pretty much every worldly adversary but the school that sits just up U.S. 27. Playing catch-up is now UF's game.

In the 400-page UF football media guide, there are headlines just inside the flashy front cover that trumpet the mighty '90s. One of them declares, "Florida was one of only two schools in the nation to finish each of the 10 seasons of the decade ranked in the Top15." Another one brags, "Florida averaged a final poll ranking of 6.5 in the 1990s, second best in the nation for the decade."

It isn't mentioned that, in both cases, FSU was a landslide No. 1. 'Noles had an average ranking of 2.8 in the '90s while Bowden's gents never wound up ranking lower than No. 4.

Then came another kickoff, for the 45th time, politics aside in more ways than one, with the Gators and 'Noles both feeling a need to further prove themselves. Florida still led the series 26-16-2 but recent history told a different story.

These two, they're the greatest.

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