Every neighborhood has a kid that torments the other kids. He isn’t the smartest (obviously). His house is painted hideous colors (garnet and gold). His parents taught him to say racist things (war chants). Everyone knows better than to care what he thinks or says and yet the kid continues to rule the block through sheer force of personality. You can get straight A’s, be an All-Star on your little league team, have the best Christmas ever, and still this kid will find a way to “beat” you in the sandlot or driveway pick-up game and everything you accomplished means nothing in that moment.
It has certainly been a very good season for the Florida football program. Doubling last year’s win total. Beating a legitimate top 10 team. Producing some semblance of an offense. Opportunistic defense. Edge back on special teams. Dan Mullen has turned things around and there is a real sense of optimism for the first time in almost a decade. Despite those impressive strides, it could all come crumbling down should the Gators drop their sixth straight to our neighborhood bully on Saturday.
Gator nation is split on which rivalry is the most important. I get the Georgia argument and understand why some will never believe any other game is more important. But for me, there has never been a doubt. I grew up in South Florida in the 1980s and went to Florida during the 1990s. FSU was the biggest game every year, not just because of on-the-field bragging rights but maybe more so because of off-the-field trash talking. The last 12 years or so has seen the rivalry die down. UF’s dominance during its championship runs in the mid-to-late 2000s and then the Seminoles’ dominance during the Jimbo era while Florida decayed sapped the juice. Now both teams are far removed from national relevance and tomorrow’s game is barely a blip on the college football landscape. But I believe it is the most important Gators game since the 2009 SEC championship.
Everyone is aware of the recent history in this series. Florida hasn’t just been noncompetitive, they’ve been downright embarrassed. The Gators have scored 37 in the past three games; FSU scored 38 last year. Five losses in a row is the longest UF losing streak in the rivalry. Seven of eight is sickening. Add in the Seminoles sudden dominance in men’s hoops with a rivalry worst five-game losing streak for Florida and my appetite for a win tomorrow is ravenous.
The one miracle season of the Muschamp era and the two SEC East title seasons of the McElwain era were fool’s gold. At no time did Florida look like a complete team and a program on the rise. Mullen has brought something different to Gainesville. Of course the Gators are still miles away from where they need to be, but the improvements in competency, discipline, and competitiveness all show the potential of two years down the road. The momentum was stymied by the back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri but has since been re-established.
On the grand scale, one game means very little for Mullen and what he’s building. At the beginning of the season, the majority of Gators would have taken eight regular season wins as success. The recruiting impact of head-to-head matchups is always exaggerated. The Gators are headed in the right direction and one game’s outcome shouldn’t effect that. However, a fragile psyche for a downtrodden program needs a lift. A loss to the worst Florida State team in maybe 40 years would stunt everything positive that’s been accomplished this season. A road win over a rival to snap a long losing streak is vital. It is imperative the Gators pull off a win in Tallahassee. Noting else matters. The streak must end.