Florida vs. FSU: Steering out of the skid would reassure Gators recruits, boosters

Are these the Bull Gators of the future? (And can someone buy me that circle logo black UF shirt?) - Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Florida's lost two straight to Florida State, and that's done more than just give Seminoles reason to annoy their better-salaried friends. Can the Gators end that before it becomes a streak?

You've heard the awful and corny sayings: "The time is 31 to 7! Make sure to remind Gators fans every day when it's 6:39 that it's 21 to 7!" And if you've been on the Internet in the last two years, you've probably gotten into an argument that a 'Nole has attempted to end with "31-7" or "21-7," twin applications of the time-honored and reliable scoreboard taunt. But Florida's recent futility against FSU means more than cringe-worthy jibes from the other side: How the Gators perform against their greatest in-state rival has a major impact on recruiting, and on long-term booster support.

You've heard this about Florida recruits before: "He grew up a Gators fan, just wait until we offer him" is used as a sort of incantation by some, a way to convince ourselves that players who saw their heroes in orange and blue will want to follow in those footsteps. That's certainly true for some (though proximity plays a bigger role in determining loyalties than is usually acknowledged), and there are undoubtedly players in the class of 2013 who saw Chris Leak and Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden help Florida dominate Florida State for much of the 2000s.

If Florida State beats Florida on Saturday, though, class of 2014 recruits won't remember a Gators win over FSU since eighth grade, which is a significant span for a 17-year-old. And with Florida at No. 4 in the BCS rankings, a loss at Doak in a game in which Florida State is a touchdown favorite would look like the Gators not being able to win the biggest game in the Sunshine State.

Florida and Florida State don't actually chase as many of the same recruits as you might think, with Florida State doing a better job up in the Panhandle and in Alabama and down in South Florida than Florida has in the last couple of years (Muschamp taking over for the departed Aubrey Hill as the guy in charge of South Florida this year was a tacit admission that the Gators were going to be relatively uncompetitive in Broward and Dade) while the Gators focused on the I-4 corridor and dipped into more distant out-of-state talent pools. (Of those five Florida players mentioned earlier, only Tebow's from Florida; Leak and Spikes were both from North Carolina, which has been Alachua North in recent years.)

But a player remembering one team as the perpetual winner and one as the perpetual loser can help stop a recruiting battle before it even starts, and there's no doubt that UF establishing itself as the state's dominant team in the past decade was valuable on the recruiting trail. Urban Meyer produced the teams that produced that dominance, though, and Will Muschamp hasn't replicated it yet. An 0-2 record against FSU would become a part of every conversation with a recruit vacillating between matriculating in Gainesville and Tallahassee.

And beating rivals is maybe more critically important for reassuring boosters than swaying recruits. I'm not privy to a lot of the numbers about the University Athletic Association's financial health, but I know that the relatively good paid attendance numbers and disappointing crowds mean that students and sidewalk fans are to blame, not the well-heeled Bull Gators who make it rain for Florida. That makes sense: Bull Gators are mostly lifers who were Florida fans or students way back in the Charley Pell days or younger professionals who made the decision to pony up during Steve Spurrier's reign and now bring their families to games, and they come rain or shine. The decision to become a Bull Gator, though, depends on both financial capabilities and return on investment.

The Meyer years were transformational in a different way than the Spurrier ones were: Meyer's Gators winning at the same time Billy Donovan's did made Florida the epicenter of college sports, but they also helped fuel expectations that would seem irrational to nearly every fan base but ours. Florida fans genuinely thought Florida was going to win a title in 2009, its third in four years, and both establish those Gators as the modern era's dynasty and cement an indestructible foundation. Even the Bull Gators who gave millions then were buying into something potentially unprecedented for cheap: That gleaming Heavener Football Complex was built in part by 16 donors throwing in $1 million each, and for that they got a piece of a shrine to the greatest era in Florida football, with their names on the Stadium Road side of the building and the plaque for Tebow's "Promise" mere feet away on the side facing Gale Lemerand. (North-South, if you're older than I am.)

It didn't turn into an inarguably dynastic era, however, and then Meyer's passion and health waned as the talent around him got less transcendent, his departure leaving the Gators with a need to reload. Muschamp's doing that and rebuilding, and I think he's going to make things better for the long term in Gainesville, but most UF '13 students who entered in the fall of 2009 have seen the Gators go 38-13 and fail to win the SEC title in their time at Florida. That's a fantastic record that a lot of ADs, coaches, and programs would kill for, but, at Florida, it's disappointing.

And so I wonder if Bull Gators-to-be who are currently trying to figure out how best to watch tomorrow's game and how little they can study for December finals aren't in an enthusiasm lull that might only hurt Florida 10 or 15 years down the road.

These issues are easily rectifiable: All Florida has to do is beat FSU on Saturday, and Florida's going to look like the state's dominant team after a season in which the 'Noles were primed for a championship run. But the old saw isn't wrong: one is a fluke, two is a trend ... and three is a pattern.

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