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Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Momentum on the line in Gainesville

By Edward Aschoff

Quietly, Florida and Florida State will get together inside the Swamp Saturday.

For a rivalry that gained national notoriety during the 1990s and grabbed headlines with the Gators’ tremendous runs under former coach Urban Meyer, there hasn’t been much -- if any -- excitement around this game.

Outside of northern Florida, you aren’t likely to hear much talk about two unranked teams that have a combined 13-9 record.

This once proud rivalry is taking a back seat to the rest of the college football rivalries this weekend.

And it really isn’t a surprise considering Florida has its first losing record against conference opponents since 1986 and the Seminoles went from national title contenders to not making it to the ACC championship game.

Still, those on Florida’s side insist that this game means a lot to the season and the program.

Will Muschamp
Will Muschamp's Gators are fired up to face Florida State on Saturday.
Like the rivalry, Florida was once in the national spotlight, but is now treading water in an average SEC East. But that mess doesn’t matter Saturday. Florida can add a much-needed positive with a win over its archrival, and the same can be said for Florida State.

“It’s real big,” senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard said.

“It’s a battle of respect. The whole year we can talk about how we beat Florida State. We’re just playing for pride and it’s a big win for our program.”

It’s big for the program because in a season of misery, it would provide some hope for the future. Five losses will sting, but seeing a win against Florida State could cure everything heading into the offseason. It could provide a spark and momentum for this team heading into Will Muschamp's second year.

Florida’s coach, and even the players, have preached that they entertain each opponent as a nameless, faceless adversary. Things are different in rivalry games. They’re different to the fans and they should be different to those inside the football program.

Muschamp, who hasn’t had the same public excitement toward rivalry games like Meyer did at Florida, has just one win over Florida’s major rivals. That came in Week 3 when Florida beat Tennessee 33-23.

Since then, Florida has won just two more SEC games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

“This is a huge game,” Muschamp said. “There’s no question about that.”

At the beginning of the week, Muschamp described a win over Florida State as a “shot in the arm” for the team. It would boost Florida as it heads into bowl preparation and it would ensure that Muschamp’s first season wouldn’t end with a losing record.

Maybe it even gives Florida some recruiting momentum. While Muschamp insists that the outcomes of games don’t immediately have an impact on recruits, seeing a “W” at the end of the schedule is always a plus for recruits.

More importantly, the psyche of Florida’s players will be altered by Saturday's outcome. The entire state watches this game.

A lot of the players know people from both sidelines and major bragging rights are on the line. This might not have the national flavor that it once did, but it still means a lot to the players who must go home and face friends and family wearing the opposite color combination.

“There’s nothing like beating Florida State,” Howard said. “We can brag about it for a whole year.”

And Muschamp can brag about it too. He won’t publicly, but when he gets home and finds that time to relax, he can sit back and see that he’s 1-0 in this rivalry. Maybe he’ll even joke with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who happens to be a good friend and owns a beach house with him, about it.

For now, Muschamp won’t worry about how he’ll react to a win or loss. He’s more concerned about sending his players out the right way.

“I don’t worry about me. I worry about the players and our program,” he said. “That’s about all I worry about. I’ll be fine.”

He’ll be even better with a win Saturday.