Friday, September 6, 2013
A lot is on the line for Florida and Miami
By Edward Aschoff
Dante Fowler Jr. didn’t know how important this weekend’s matchup with Miami was. But people around him have made sure he's been properly educated this week.
Florida’s sophomore defensive end said he's been bombarded about the importance of a win by fans on social media and around Gainesville with sentiments such as "Beat the Canes!" or "We hate them!" raining down.
After No. 12 Florida (1-0) travels to muggy South Beach to face Miami (1-0) inside Sun Life Stadium on Saturday, it could be a long time before we see these two teams together in the regular season again. In the future, two of the biggest programs in the state of Florida might have to hope for bowl matchups to meet.
Gators coach Will Muschamp, who grew up in Gainesville in the '80s, has done a good job of educating his players on the rivalry's significance. He soaked himself in the game, which kicked off each season from 1981 to 1987 and had been played 49 times in 50 years before going by the wayside in the late '80s.
The memory that sticks out to Muschamp in this rivalry is seeing fullback James Jones' one-handed touchdown catch in the north end zone at Florida Field in the Gators' dramatic 17-14 win against the Canes in 1982.
Dante Fowler Jr. is one of the Gator defenders tasked with stopping a potent Miami offense on Saturday.
Consider this: Muschamp was 11 when he saw Jones' touchdown live. Fowler was in ninth grade the last time these two teams played (2008).
"It's a fantastic series," Muschamp said, "and we'll see where it goes after Saturday."
Where it likely will go is on the shelf, but not this weekend. Saturday, it'll be in everyone's face. Players know each other. Coaches have tried stirring up those old bitter rivalry feelings.
Nationally, this game hasn't received a ton of attention, but in-state, it means something.
"It's going to be really cool. I know the atmosphere is going to be huge," Fowler said. "It's going to be sold out and everything. I can't wait for it."
So both teams might as well go out with a bang, right? That shouldn't be a problem, as both enter Saturday's affair in almost must-win situations.
For the Gators, this has an early BCS play-in vibe. As with Georgia's opener against Clemson, the end result won't affect Florida's chances of making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game in the win-loss column, but mentally, this could tip the Gators one way or the other.
"It's really, really big," Fowler said. "This could be one of those momentum games. If you win, you can get a lot of momentum going into the season because Miami is a good team."
A loss, and the Gators could fall a little flat. Atlanta is the main goal, but this team was so close to a national championship last year that the thirst is still very real, and an early loss could derail Florida's BCS train.
Even with Miami slowly rising back up the college football ranks, this loss likely would hurt more in the BCS realm than one to a conference foe such as South Carolina, LSU or Georgia. An undefeated run through the nation's toughest conference would help get the Gators back in the running, but is this team equipped for a run similar to last year's?
For Miami, it's a chance to really pop back into the national spotlight. This is a program that has seen much brighter days and is looking to become more relevant nationally once again.
Right now, Miami is teetering on that line. A win could thrust the Hurricanes over to the right side.
“That would be a big boost for the program and my teammates, just because it’s something we’ve worked so hard for," said Miami running back Duke Johnson, who leads the FBS with 186 rushing yards. “Coach [Al] Golden has done a great job of getting us focused the past couple of years and getting us on track to where Miami used to be. ... This game would be a way of showing what we have and how far we’ve come.”
Johnson and Fowler agreed that this game feels like a matchup with Florida State, which has become a bigger rival for both schools since they stopped playing each other annually after 1987.
A lot of emotions will be swirling in that blistering South Florida heat, and Muschamp knows his confident pack of players will have to control those emotions when they meet the Canes. After all, the Gators have struggled with on-field discipline during Muschamp's tenure.
“You’ve gotta keep your composure," he said. "It’s going to be a very emotional game.”
The Gators and Canes have been champing at the bit for this one. Despite the future of the series, this one means a lot to those who will be suiting up Saturday. Come game time, things should be electric on South Beach.
“When it's time for the kickoff, we'll let everything out," Fowler said.