Why Florida must beat Florida State on Saturday
In the 1990s, the Florida-Florida State rivalry was almost peerless in terms of national significance. In that decade, the game featured two of the game’s best head coaches in Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden and directly impacted the national championship picture for nine consecutive seasons from 1991-1999.
All told, the teams met 12 times in 10 seasons, with Florida State winning 7, Florida 4 and one famous tie, the “Choke at Doak”, that remains as epic to FSU fans as it remains as heartbreaking to Gators. Remarkably, in a run of rivalry greatness that is unlikely to occur again, the two schools were each ranked in the top 10 for all 12 meetings. The teams were so evenly matched they played twice in both 1994 and 1996, meeting in monumental regular-season games and again in the Sugar Bowl. In 1996, Florida avenged a narrow regular season loss in Tallahassee with a 52-20 rout of the Seminoles, capturing the program’s first national championship in the process.
Put plainly, Florida-Florida State wasn’t just about in-state bragging rights, it was about winning championships. As Bobby Bowden explained it some years later, “People always ask how we had all those good teams and only won two championships, or how Steve (Spurrier) won all those games but only had one championship. Some of it was about Miami. Some of it was Nebraska. Plenty of it was us beating up on each other, dadgummit.”
Saturday’s Sunshine State Showdown won’t impact the national championship picture.
But for its own reasons, it’s still one of the more important games in the rivalry’s storied history.
It’s big for the Seminoles.
Year 1 under Willie Taggart has been a struggle. Many national analysts and Seminoles fans alike looked past Taggart’s pedestrian .500 record as a head coach and hyped the hire as one that would help reclaim the excellence of the bulk of the Jimbo Fisher era and dominate in living rooms, bringing recruit after recruit to Tallahassee. Early recruiting victories seemed to confirm those who sided with the hype. Doak Campbell Stadium nearly exploded in anticipation by the opening kickoff against Virginia Tech on Labor Day, only to be quieted in a 24-3 Hokies rout that set the tone for a disappointing season in Tallahassee.
FSU stumbled to a 4-6 start and this game looked like a formality, until the Seminoles rallied for what Taggart called a “statement win” over then No. 20 Boston College last week.
Suddenly, the Florida game is about far more than pride.
On the line are a number of remarkable and record-setting streaks, some of which speak to FSU’s prominence as one of the premier programs in America, the other which speaks to FSU’s dominance of its home state, which happens to sit on the most fertile recruiting ground in the country.
At stake for FSU Saturday:
- national-best 41-consecutive winning seasons
- national-best 36 consecutive seasons reaching a bowl game
- school-record 5-game winning streak over Florida.
That’s a big football game, and the Noles know it, from the head coach to the players.
“(The streaks) are very important,” Willie Taggart told the media Saturday after the win over Boston College. “We’re a prideful university. We pride ourselves on winning. You look at the winning streak over Florida — that’s winning. We’ve been winning every year.”
Seminoles placekicker Ricky Aguayo was even more blunt.
“We have one more with that school down south, and we know how important it is to us and our fans to protect our winning streak, the bowl streak. We have to be ready. We hate those guys,” Aguayo told the media Saturday night.
As massive a game as it is Florida State, here’s the sneaky reality.
It’s a bigger game for Florida.
FSU has owned the Gators this decade, winning 7 of 8 games, the past 5 coming by a lopsided average of 19 points. While there are a host of reasons for FSU’s dominance, there’s one massive one that is at stake in every Florida-Florida State game, whether Dan Mullen and the Gators staff would like to admit it or not.
The winner of the Florida-Florida State game has finished with a higher-ranked recruiting class than the loser for the past 13 seasons. The average rank of the winner’s class in that period? Fourth.
Despite the disappointing record, FSU appears poised to sign a strong “bump” (second-year) class under Willie Taggart. The Gators are in better shape than their current ranking of 24th nationally suggests, but in truth need a victory over the worst FSU football team in 40 years for Mullen to gain some leverage over the living room appeal of Taggart and his staff.
Here, there’s a story about a blue-chip player deciding between FSU under Jimbo Fisher and Florida under Will Muschamp that’s worth telling.
The player loved Florida as a university and was drawn to Florida’s staff, but ultimately decided FSU was where he’d have the best chance to develop and win.
When asked what Jimbo Fisher said that convinced him FSU was where he wanted to be, he offered this: “(Fisher) recited the score to the Florida-FSU game and told me Will Muschamp was a good man and Florida was a nice place to get an education, but if I went (to UF) he’d have to beat the hell out of me for four or five years. I committed to FSU the next day.”
That player, a 5-star who didn’t want to be identified, went 3-1 against Florida and won a national title.
Florida and Mullen need to win Saturday to flip the script on that pitch. They need to be able to go into living rooms and argue that while coach Taggart is a fine man and FSU is a storied program, Florida is a top-10 public university and the school they’ll need to choose if they want to win the rivalry game and compete for championships.
Win, and suddenly the Gators are well-positioned to reclaim the cyclical mantle of best of the state’s Big 3 programs (I see you, UCF, really, I do.)
Think of the alternate universe.
If Florida can’t beat the worst FSU team to take the field in 40 years, when will the Gators ever win again?
If Florida can’t qualify for the program’s first New Year’s 6 Bowl game (FSU has been to two plus a College Football Playoff) by defeating a team with a losing record, when will Florida ever go to a New Year’s 6 game?
In a season that’s been about laying the foundation for a program’s revival, a win over your in-state rival is all that’s left to accomplish.
The alternative is more of the same, more looking up at FSU, even when the Noles are down.
For all the acclaim of the job Dan Mullen has done in Gainesville in Year 1 and all the disdain and doubt surrounding Willie Taggart in Tallahassee, a Florida loss Saturday immediately flips the narrative. It would be hard to call Year 1 under Dan Mullen a success if Florida can’t handle a woeful FSU.
The Noles are, if you trust recruiting rankings (and you should), the more talented football team, by some distance.
Florida’s roster contains 36 blue-chip recruits, only two of whom were consensus 5-star players. Both of those 5-stars are seniors. While that’s more blue-chips than at SEC East rivals South Carolina (23) and Tennessee (34), teams the Gators beat — it’s well-behind Georgia (61), who whipped Florida, and Taggart’s FSU (56).
The Seminoles undoubtedly know this, trust their personnel, and believe they’ll win.
“We can’t afford anything else but a win,” FSU cornerback Stanford Samuels III said this week. “So that’s all we talk about, we’re going to win next week. We’re going to beat the Gators.”
It’s the attitude Samuels should have and has to have.
But Florida is the better football team.
The Gators are 8-3, have lost to three teams that collectively have only 8 losses and have defeated multiple ranked opponents. Statistically, the Gators have a better offense, a slightly better defense and by far the better special teams unit. Florida should be confident.
More than that, Florida must win.