For just the third time in eight years, Florida and Florida State will meet as ranked opponents on Saturday. The game that received national acclaim in the 1990s and early 2000s has found some of the luster lost in recent years, thanks to the ugly effects of cyclical football.
But with the 12th-ranked Gators (10-1, 7-1 SEC) hosting No. 13 Florida State (9-2, 6-2 ACC) for a night game in the Swamp, this game finally has the feel of a worthy, prime-time matchup. The nastiness and bitterness that added so much flavor to this game may be lacking like in years past, but with Florida's playoff positioning on the line and a chance for either team to take some mighty recruiting momentum into the offseason, Florida vs. Florida State is creeping back into the national college football mainframe, and that's only good for the sport.
“The college football world needs to stop and watch this game," former Florida State safety Myron Rolle said. "When this game gets to where it has been, like in the 1990s and the early 2000s, then college football comes alive again and everyone takes notice.”
Rolle, who played in the series during the early years of Urban Meyer and the waning moments of Bobby Bowden in the early 2000s, grew up in New Jersey watching these bitter rivals slug it out for national supremacy during the '90s. Thanks to the arrival of Steve Spurrier at Florida, with his slick tongue and masterful playbook, this game became one of the premier rivalries when Spurrier and Bowden faced off.
There was fun poking ("Free Shoes University!") and plenty of player-to-player bulletin-board material in the newspapers, in addition to hard (sometimes late) hits, razzle-dazzle touchdowns and more trash talk. Tear-inducing endings were no strangers to the affair that captivated the nation when FSU's brand of reckless abandon football met the Gators' almost finesse style. There was lovable Bobby and the villainous Steve.
“When this game comes, the records go out the window," former Florida State running back Leon Washington said. "It means everything.”
You had Heisman-winning quarterbacks and record-breaking running backs. There were high-stepping flashes of light at receiver, while monstrous linemen and linebackers owned the trenches. Coming across the middle against either secondary was a no-no, and vitriol circulated throughout the fans above.
This rivalry even made it all the way to the national championship one year.
“It’s as good as any [rivalry]," current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "They can say all the others, but when you look at the number of players and implications, I think it’s right there at the top with anybody.”
This game brought new attitude with FSU's roughneck style and Florida's Fun-N-Gun mentality. During the '90s, national championships were on the line, as these teams met as top-10 opponents in all 13 meetings from 1991-2000. Twice, the Seminoles claimed national championships during that span (1993, 1999), while the Gators trounced FSU 52-20 in the 1997 Allstate Sugar Bowl to claim their first-ever national title.
“It was kind of the epicenter of the college football universe," former Florida wide receiver Chris Doering said.
Even when the game took a backseat on Saturdays, it meant a ton to the people involved. This is about in-state bragging rights and pride for players who saw each other countless times on the high school gridiron. Friendships come into the game, but once teams are inside a stadium together, those relationships quickly disappear. Respect turns to anger, which usually turns into the traditional, midfield taunting sessions both teams have grown so accustomed to.
“It being a deal again: It's real good," said FSU running back Dalvin Cook, who was once a longtime Florida commit. "There ain't no other way you want it or I want it. I want both of us to be good, coming in with a winning record. It makes the rivalry bigger and makes the game bigger itself. It’s a good thing that both of us are having a winning season to make the game bigger.”
That's what this game does to folks. You'll find people on one side rooting for the other during the season just so this game means more and potential victory is that much sweeter.
“I wish Florida State hadn’t have lost and were still in the mix for the national championship because that’s the way it used to be and will get back to being on a more frequent basis," Doering said.
With the direction these schools are going in, Doering could be right. These are the programs in the state of Florida again, which is great for a sport that needs this rivalry to take hold once more.
“It’s great to see these teams back on top where we deserve to be," Florida running back Kelvin Taylor said. “It’s one of the best games in college football to be a part of.”