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UF eyes SEC wait-lifting

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000

ATLANTA -- It's difficult to gauge today's hunger of the Florida Gators.

Win a rematch with Auburn in the SEC Championship Game and the Gators will hear, "Well, you oughta," the Gainesville guys having put a 38-7 hurt on the Tigers seven weeks ago.

But what happens if Steve Spurrier experiences a second straight Georgia Dome funk/flunk? Without question, across a vast and critical landscape, feisty rivals of the Gators and their controversial coach will unleash loud, nasty guffaws.

Becoming the best ... hard.

Staying up there ... harder.

Auburn has a bubbling vat of underdog motivation, like atoning for the Swamp slaughter of Oct. 14. There is raging desire to prove Tigers manhood to sassy Gators.

Nobody has difficulty getting revved to combat Spurrier and his soldiers, especially Southeastern Conference brethren, plus UF's now-dominant neighbor, Florida State.

This is SEC's highest court and the Gators are on trial. Today will define their 2000 season. Semisweet or somewhat bitter? If they again beat Auburn, it should be reason for a load of UF joy, winning a sixth league championship since S.O.S. became coach in 1990. Reaffirming the Gators as SEC lords. Stabilizing their national reputation.

To lose would be an ugly bruise. Jabar Gaffney, a Florida receiver just honored as America's best freshman player, said the Gators must take Auburn seriously, "Or we'll find ourselves going to the Outback Bowl or something."

Or something.

If the Gators mess up today, they fall to a 9-3 record, with back-to-back flops against defending national champ FSU and a suddenly gloating bunch of SEC-bossing Tigers, and Spurrier's frowning clan gets a two-hour New Year's journey from campus, going down I-75 to Tampa for what will be extensively embraced as an Outback consolation against Ohio State.

Better steaks than stakes.

Big-time college pressures can be semi-lethal. Unique challenges, with gobs of potential pitfalls, for football fellows who wear the colors of any school where true excellence is expected. Even at high-flying FSU. How quickly will critics frown if, say, the 'Noles take a heavy dip next season? I mean, they will be losing an extraordinary number of seniors in Tallahassee.

What if FSU goes 7-4 in 2001, failing for the first time to be ACC champion? Bobby Bowden will hear, "Has the old coach lost it?" While a 7-4 might trigger ticker-tape parades in Lexington, Nashville, Winston-Salem or Durham, you would hear some crank-the-hearses mentality if mighty Florida State produced the same numbers.

Gators understand.

Florida's seniors should be ring-ravenous today. Most of Spurrier's elders were signed just after Gainesville won a national championship in 1996 plus a fourth straight SEC trophy. But since, there have been no rings, except for the noises that echo in UF ears about going L-L-L against FSU and also taking a 34-7 whipping from Alabama in last year's SEC glory game.

"It's do or die for us," said Florida offensive tackle Mike Pearson. "We're not desperate but we are anxious. It's time to get some jewelry." This coming not from a senior but a sophomore.

Young men like Mike, as they mature over the next 60 years or so, will not enjoy living with a weak answer when asked, "Hey, weren't you on one of Steve Spurrier's championship squads?"

Even with their bombout in Tallahassee, these Gators should be viable for an A-minus grade this season, if they're rekindled as SEC kings with a 10-2 record, heading for a Sugar Bowl challenge that should be most invigorating.

Florida's detractors to the contrary, including an ambitious Auburn, millions of people would be made quite happy if the Gators handled the Tigers today.

South Carolina's upstart Gamecocks would celebrate, inheriting that chance in Raymond James Stadium to contest the Buckeyes. It would be preferred for Tampa, I would think, to get a giddy bunch from Columbia rather than wounded, less-than-gleeful Gators.

There also would be smiles from Sugar Bowl operatives, the New Orleans extravaganza landing revitalized Gators for a likely Jan. 2 pairing against a festering old UF rival, Miami (if Oklahoma wins the Big 12 championship).

Yeah, the 'Canes ...

Not only is UM second ranked in the nation, there could be double-dip Hurricanes motivation in the Sugar, the kids from Coral Gables feeling bamboozled out of the national championship game, plus knowing their university has been bypassed by Florida since 1987, following a history of 49 football meetings since 1938.

For just about everybody but the Auburn Tigers, and/or the most spirited of Spurrier enemies who never want to see him succeed, a win by the Gators today would be a good thing.

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