Swamped by past despair, Gators look to snap hex Matchup isn't perfect, thanks to Fla. St. loss

GAINESVILLE, FLA. — GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Can you imagine what it would have been like had Florida State's Warrick Dunn squeezed himself over the goal line in the final, frantic seconds at Virginia earlier this month? Can you imagine if both the Seminoles and arch-rival Florida had come into today's high-noon showdown here at "The Swamp" unbeaten?

If you can't, let Bobby Bowden do it for you.


"It's already something 'cause the stakes are so high," the Florida State coach said earlier this week. "But if we hadn't stubbed our toe against Virginia, it would have really been something."

It was The Stub Heard 'Round The State, if not the country. It cost the sixth-ranked Seminoles a chance at an undefeated season and, most likely, a national championship. But a victory over the third-ranked Gators would certainly get Florida State (9-1) back in the national championship picture, albeit on the periphery.


For Florida (10-0), a win this afternoon not only would complete the first undefeated regular season in school history, but help exorcise some recent ghostly results against the Seminoles. Start with last year's 31-31 tie in Tallahassee, which many around here considered a loss after Florida blew a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead. Or the 33-21 defeat at Florida Field two years ago, which helped FSU win its first national championship.

"We feel we have a chance if we coach and play well, and keep our minds clear," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gators still will have to play Arkansas in next week's SEC championship game. "We certainly hope we can."

The winner of today's game likely will go to the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tempe, Ariz., to play top-ranked Nebraska. For the third straight year, the Cornhuskers finished the regular season unbeaten yesterday with a 37-0 win over Oklahoma.

The nation's only other unbeaten Division I-A team, 11-0 Ohio State, closes out its regular season today at Michigan.

Those involved in the Florida-Florida State matchup believe that emotion will play as big a factor as execution, and that defense will be the difference between teams with two of the nation's most potent offenses.

Both teams will try to establish their running games in order to open up their vaunted passing games.

"It's very difficult when you play a team like Florida," said FSU free safety Sean Hamlet. "You have to shut down their running game and make them throw. If they get their running game going, it's going to be a long day."

Said Bow Dunnden: "I know they've come a long way [defensively] since last year. They've gotten some new schemes. They're doing a better job in their pass coverage."


Florida's new defensive schemes grew out of last year's games with the Seminoles. Quarterback Danny Kanell threw for 421 yards during the regular-season game and 325 more in a 23-17 Sugar Bowl victory. Dunn, whose late touchdown helped beat the Gators here two years ago, caught 19 passes.

With the departure of defensive coordinator Ron Zook, and Bob Pruett's arrival, the Gators have been more aggressive and more resourceful, making better adjustments during games.

That, along with Florida's explosive offense, helped the Gators make second-half comebacks against both Tennessee and Auburn.

"I think those games gave us a lot of confidence," said Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel. "We know that we can still win when we fall behind."

Confidence is a big thing for the Gators. They've never been 10-0 before, and they've only beaten the Seminoles once in the past nine years.

Though they'd hate to admit it, Florida fans are much like their counterparts in Tallahassee were before Florida State finally won a national title.


They hope that disaster, especially against the Seminoles, is not lurking around the corner. You can hear it from Spurrier and his players, just as you heard it from Bowden and his team prior to beating Miami a few years back.

But Florida State's confidence has been shaken a bit in the past month.

"We've become hungry again," said Dunn, whose last-play direct-snap run against Virginia fell just short of the end zone, leaving the Seminoles with their first-ever loss in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"We want to go out and show people we're a great football team. We want to prove we're one of the great teams in the country."