Success can be a tricky thing to handle.
Too much, and arrogance can set in. Too little, and depression follows.
For Florida’s football team, success has seemingly come and gone like the tide the past few years. From 2008 to 2009, the Gators stood with the giants of college football with a 26-2 record, a national championship and an SEC title. Then, Florida dabbled in mediocrity for two years with a 15-11 record.
Now, that wave of success has touched land in Gainesville again with the Gators undefeated and No. 2 in the BCS standings. A win against Georgia on Saturday, and Florida claims the SEC Eastern Division for the first time since 2009.
Florida’s rise back to relevancy has been a pleasant surprise, but so much success so quickly can be crippling, especially when players aren’t used to it.
Unlike the weeks -- and years, really -- prior, now all the pressure is on Florida. Win, and the Gators are headed to Atlanta. Lose, and the East is all but lost to one of its biggest rivals. All the work, the road comebacks and the top-10 victories will drift away.
That can be a lot for a team to digest, but senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, one of the few Gators who has seen this sort of success before at the college level, doesn’t see a change in approach. The same demeanor that got Florida to 7-0 hasn’t disappeared before the season’s biggest game.
“This team is pretty mature compared to where we were last year,” Hunter said. “For the most part, those guys have been pretty focused on what we have to get done and not let stuff get to them.”
What Florida has to do is win, but it faces a team that was expected to be in Florida’s spot. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs (6-1) are almost limping into Saturday’s showdown. They were routed by South Carolina this month and are having an internal war of words on defense.
For a team that had BCS aspirations before the season, the Bulldogs will quietly bus into Jacksonville with a lot to prove. And unlike the Gators, this is familiar territory for the Dawgs.
They climbed out of an 0-2 hole with 10 straight wins to get to Atlanta last season. Going against the odds was Georgia’s specialty, and its hope is that last season’s experience helps it Saturday.
“What we see is if we win out, there’s no reason why we can’t ... do all of the things that we dreamed at the beginning,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “That’s the same as it was last year.
“Right now, we have our backs against the wall, and we have to decide what we need to do.”
First, this team has to come together. On Monday, senior safety Shawn Williams called his defense out for playing “soft” and went on to discuss which players should be playing at linebacker. He left a few names off and hurt some feelings, as players acknowledged that they’d rather keep such talk in-house.
Whether that will motivate players or leave them sulking has yet to be seen, but when it comes to a game like this, Georgia can’t let silly bickering hold it back. Not in do-or-die mode.
“That’s where we’re at right now, so I think the guys understand how important this thing is,” coach Mark Richt said. “It’s pretty obvious. So I don’t think we’re going to have to sit here and try to figure out a way to motivate anybody.”
Just the Cocktail Party’s existence should be motivation enough for both teams, but for the Gators, you have to wonder whether their surprising run leading up to Saturday's showdown has them feeling a little presumptuous. According to their head coach, that isn’t the case.
“Nothing’s changed for us. We’re not working any longer, harder. Practice, it’s all the same,” Muschamp said. “We don’t approach things differently based on the situation, because next week’s important, too.”
The de facto semifinal for the SEC championship could turn the tide for both programs -- one soaring and one stumbling. Pressure and rankings will mean little between those hash marks.
“Any given Saturday, anything can happen,” Robinson said.
“You hope that you have that type of team that’s not going to lay down and die.”