This game is the big one for Florida.
We Gators have lived a charmed life since Steve Spurrier took over the program in 1990. The highs have been nearly as high as they come, and the lows haven't been all that low, really. The Gators haven't lost to Vandy or Kentucky in that span, two programs that Mark Richt and Spurrier at South Carolina have both lost to. Tennessee and Les Miles have lost to Kentucky too, and Auburn is staring down the possibility of two consecutive losses to Vanderbilt. Florida hasn't lost to anyone we'd now call a non-BCS school. Nick Saban has lost to two of them in his Alabama tenure alone. The team has one loss to an opponent that didn't finish with at least seven wins. That loss got the head coach fired.
Last week was simply the kind of game Florida doesn't lose. This week's is the kind Florida simply must win to claim to be "back" in any true sense.
The win over LSU was huge to be sure, but that game is not this game. At the time, we had a couple of good road wins over teams we didn't (and to some degree, still don't) know how good they were. The Tigers were still on their perch, presumed to be safe there until November 3. If the Gators didn't win, then it would be too bad but not the end of the world. Just don't embarrass yourselves, guys, like you did last year. It's not an East game, and no one other than Phil Steele expected Florida to be a true division contender anyway. It also wasn't the national game of the week, or even the SEC game of the week. That honor went to No. 5 Georgia at No. 6 South Carolina. The team had no burden of expectations on it yet; anything better than a close loss would be pure gravy.
But this one, this one is big. College GameDay is in town, signifying it as the national game of the week for many fans of all kinds of teams. It's the only match up of teams ranked in the top ten. Everyone in the country knows we're ranked No. 2 in the BCS, partly because many fans out there think we're not worthy of that rank. It's the conference game of the week. Serious SEC East implications are on the line, with South Carolina basically bowing out of the race with a loss. And, impossible to ignore, it's going to be Spurrier over on the other sideline. Story lines abound, and the light of scrutiny is brighter now than it has been in years.
This is the kind of game that the Gators win when they're at full strength. The last time the GameDay guys were in Gainesville for a top ten matchup, we beat LSU 23-10 in 2006. That team gutted out these kinds of games. So did the 2009 team. The 2008, 1995, and 1996 team dominated these games. Just about all of the teams from 1990-96 won these with regularity for that matter. It's the kind of game the Zooker never won (not at home, at least), and the last two editions of the Gators sure didn't.
I felt before last week's games that I wouldn't believe Florida is really back unless LSU beat South Carolina and Florida blew out Vandy. I needed to see that LSU wasn't as bad as they had looked in the Swamp and see our guys really take it to an inferior team. I saw the first part; I didn't see the second. Yeah, injuries, and Vandy's stadium is impossible to get excited at and all that, but the 2001 team wins that game by 40 in similar circumstances. Through last week, they're not really back.
But win this one, and they will be. There's no getting around it. They'll be back way ahead of schedule too. That's one thing that still sticks out to me from the postgame coverage of the BCS win over Ohio State, that the GameDay guys talked about how you better watch out because Florida is ahead of schedule. We weren't supposed to be that good that early in the coach's tenure, just like we weren't supposed to be 6-0 this year either.
I'm still not sure what to make of this team. It just doesn't win how I'm used to seeing the Gators win. I'm still getting used to Will Muschamp's style, just like it took me a couple of years to feel comfortable with seeing guys in orange and blue run the option. Maybe they can't truly be "back" in my mind's eye yet because they won't actually be back to doing the things I'm accustomed to seeing out of the team.
One thing that never takes getting used to is seeing the Gators win. No matter how they go about it, that much never feels wrong. Today, let's get that feeling again.