GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In a span of a couple of hours last weekend, Saturday afternoon’s Sunshine Showdown between Florida and Florida State took on an even more meaningful tone.
It wasn’t like this year’s game needed any help from the hype machine.
When the No. 6-ranked Gators (fourth in the BCS) meet 10th-ranked FSU (10th in the BCS) at Doak Campbell Stadium, it will mark the first time in 12 years both programs are ranked in the top 10 at the time of their annual showdown.
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Both teams are 10-1. Both defenses are ranked in the top four nationally. Both schools are on track for destination bowl trips.
Still, this one has an old-school feel that brings back memories of Spurrier, Bowden, Wuerffel, Dunn and all the other great characters that made the Gators-Seminoles must-watch TV throughout the 1990s.
Oh, and to keep with the retro theme, Saturday’s game has national title implications.
As soon as No. 1 Kansas State fell at Baylor and Stanford upset No. 2 Oregon in overtime last Saturday, the Gators were on their way back into the top four of the BCS.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles can improve their résumé significantly with a third consecutive victory over the Gators, and with the ACC Championship game the following weekend, you never know what could happen.
Gators coach Will Muschamp preached perspective to his team and the masses this week, referring to all the national title chatter as a “huge if.”
“We’ve got to take care of business Saturday, and really any clutter outside of just focusing on the game Saturday doesn’t really matter,” Muschamp said. “That’s really going to be my message to our football team. Let’s understand what’s at stake and what’s important, and focusing on the game.”
Still, in the Internet age and 24/7 sports-talk radio, the chatter reached a fever pitch on message boards and social media.
Unlike the days when Steve Spurrier was tossing his visor against the Seminoles and Bobby Bowden paced the sidelines in Tallahassee, the chatter never stops leading up to a big game like Saturday’s.
Fisher, in his third year, understands the increased interest in this year’s game. More than 600 media credentials are expected to be distributed by kickoff.
“It’s a matchup of two teams in the top 10, the way it should be, that Florida and Florida State are having a significance in the national limelight and what’s going on in the game,” Fisher said. “More importantly it’s a great rivalry, one of the great rivalries in college football.”
A rivalry made much more interesting last weekend when Kansas State and Oregon fell from the ranks of the unbeaten. At No. 4 in the BCS, the Gators can likely secure a BCS bowl berth with a victory over the Seminoles.
If Notre Dame loses at USC, then Florida will be right in the middle of the national championship picture heading into the conference championship games the following week.
The Gators are taking it all in stride, following the example of their head coach.
“You can’t worry about that stuff,” senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We can only control what we do on the field. If we take care of our business, then we can start looking at the other stuff.”
First up on the Gators’ mind is snapping a two-game losing streak to FSU after a six-game winning streak was snapped in 2010 in Tallahasee.
A year after neither team was ranked at the time of their clash — something that hadn’t happened since 1986 — the Gators want to make another loud statement the way they did earlier this season with wins over Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina.
“We’ve got to switch those bragging rights over to Gainesville,” sixth-year senior James Wilson said. “We’ve got to make it happen.”
The latest incarnation of the UF-FSU rivalry figures to be heavy on defense. FSU’s defense is ranked No. 1 overall nationally and Florida’s is fourth. The Gators have allowed only 11.8 points per game and have won despite struggling on offense for much of the second half of the season.
Spurrier’s South Carolina team lost to the Gators 44-11 last month in Gainesville.
The former Florida coach is a believer in what Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have done in their short time in Gainesville in creating a defensive identity for the program Spurrier made known for its offense.
“They stop the turn, and then they stop the pass, which all the great defenses do,” Spurrier said this week. “They’ve got a good scheme. They are fundamentally sound. Their D-line is very good. They have no weaknesses. They don’t mess up much and that’s why they are one of the best around.”
Following Florida’s 21-7 loss at home to FSU in his first season, Muschamp called the Gators “soft” after the game. The public challenge sparked a turnaround that resulted in a win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl and then seven consecutive wins to start this season.
Muschamp revisited his public challenge earlier this week.
“I think it was a culmination of things, you get built up, a little frustration, and you say what’s on your mind,” Muschamp said. “That’s what I did with the team in the locker room when the game was over and that was our challenge as we moved forward.
“When you’re 6-6 at the University of Florida, it’s never good after experiencing it, but you also find out who’s on board and who’s not with your football team. I knew then, with that team, with our team right now, that we had a bunch of guys that were bought into what we were doing.”
It showed on the field in Muschamp’s second season.
The Gators lost to Georgia last month but have won three in a row heading into Saturday’s game to climb back into the national title conversation.
They will have starting quarterback Jeff Driskel back after he missed last week’s 23-0 win over Jacksonville State with a sprained right ankle. That should help Florida’s chances, but they will also have to continue to play airtight defense against FSU quarterback EJ Manuel and his dangerous corps of receivers.
And they must play tougher than a year ago when they lost to the Seminoles despite limiting FSU to 95 yards of total offense.
With everything at stake, this year’s Florida-FSU game isn’t lacking for attention.
A week ago that was in question. Not anymore.
“The month of November is always crazy,” Fisher said. “It’s like March Madness. I think that’s one of the great things that make college football what it is, that you never know what’s going to happen.
“It’s amazing to me how we all sit in astonishment, like, ‘can you believe this is happening?’ Well, if you look at it, it happens every year.”
It just so happens the Gators and Seminoles are back in the picture.