GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In-state rivals Florida State and Florida are calling this a huge game, pointing to yearlong bragging rights, recruiting battles and a mythical state championship.
Talk about making the most of a bad situation.
Both teams are unranked for their annual game for the first time since 1986, a telling sign about how far both have fallen in recent years.
This season has been worse than many envisioned. The Seminoles (7-4) lost three consecutive games early and then ended a five-game winning streak with a one-point loss at home against Virginia last week. The Gators (6-5) lost four in a row for the first time since 1988 and had to rally to beat lower division Furman last week.
Given those struggles, Saturday night's game ended up on ESPN2 — the first time the series has been off CBS, ABC or ESPN since Florida's television ban in 1986.
Nonetheless, players and coaches are talking as though it's a game with meaningful implications. At best, though, a victory could somewhat salvage one team's disappointing season.
"It would make everything better," Gators quarterback John Brantley said. "That's the one team that's always circled on your schedule each year. ... For us, it's always a big game. We always treat it like we're both undefeated teams. We're going to give them our best shot; they're going to give us their best shot."
Brantley is one of 19 seniors who will be honored before they play their final home game at Florida. Of those, only nine were on scholarship before the season. The class is one of the program's biggest problems, because it produced few starters aside from Brantley, defensive tackle Jaye Howard and running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey.
"I'll just remember what we did around here," Rainey said. "We gave a lot to the program. It's a good group of seniors. It would be a great win."
The Seminoles feel the same way, especially since they haven't won in Gainesville since 2003.
"It would be great, man, not even for myself, but for the program," FSU safety Terrance Parks said. "Of course it's a big rival game. To end the season with a win against Florida, I feel like would send the team sort of a confidence booster going into next season."
The last four games in the series have been lopsided affairs. With Tim Tebow at quarterback, the Gators dominated the Seminoles between 2007 and 2009. Florida State got a measure of payback last season, the first under Jimbo Fisher, by beating Florida 31-7 in Tallahassee.
There's no telling what will happen in this one.
Both teams have been plagued by turnovers, defensive lapses and inefficiency in the red zone. Injuries have been a factor, too.
FSU lost both games that backup Clint Trickett started in place of quarterback EJ Manuel. Florida went 0-2 with Brantley on the sideline because of a sprained ankle.
They are healthy now. Neither team can say the same about its offense. The 'Noles have averaged 317 yards in their last three games; the Gators have been even worse, averaging a paltry 254 yards in their last six conference games.
It's a far cry from the kind of programs the schools fielded in the 1990s, when the matchup often featured two top-10 teams vying for national championships.
Still, players and coaches insist the game is special.
"Anytime you beat Florida, no matter what their record is or what our record is, it's a great feeling," FSU receiver Bert Reed said. "There's a lot of pride that goes into the game. Whenever you come out on top, it's a good feeling and you're going to celebrate."
Fisher celebrated last year. Will Muschamp would like to do the same in his first season at Florida.
The coaches worked together at LSU and Auburn, and they bought a beach house together in Florida. Nowadays, they rarely talk because they're so focused on getting their programs back to an elite level. When, or if, that happens is anyone's guess.
A win Saturday certainly would be a start.
"I don't know that it would override the losses," Muschamp said. "I just think certainly ending on a positive note against Florida State certainly would be a shot in the arm for us emotionally heading into a bowl game and heading into our offseason and sending the seniors out the right way.
"There's no question, winning helps everything. It puts everybody in a better mood; you become a better coach all of a sudden when you win a game."
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