Florida, FSU seek more than just bragging rights

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GAINESVILLE, FLA. (AP) - There are no national championship implications. There are no Heisman Trophy candidates. There are no fired or soon-to-be-retired coaches on either sideline.

Without question, the Florida-Florida State series has less intrigue and fewer story lines than it’s had in recent years.

The four-loss Gators don’t have Tim Tebow and are far removed from championship contention. The three-loss Seminoles are still in the Atlantic Coast Conference title hunt, but have no control over their fate. So what does Saturday’s game in Tallahassee mean?

Almost everything.

The Gators (7-4) have a chance to extend their winning streak to seven in the storied rivalry, tighten their stranglehold on the Sunshine State and maybe even get to a New Year’s Day bowl. The No. 22 Seminoles (8-3) can stop the losing skid, get several seniors their first victory over Florida and give first-year coach Jimbo Fisher a signature win that would go a long way toward getting the once-proud program back to national prominence.

“It’s another step, it’s another challenge, it’s another thing we have to accomplish, it’s another thing that we have to get ready to understand how to do,” Fisher said.

It might be time, too.

The Seminoles are certainly overdue in a series that used to be one of the most anticipated in the country. They lost to Florida in fired coach Ron Zook’s final game in 2004 _ that one came on a day the Seminoles named their field after longtime coach Bobby Bowden _ and haven’t beaten Meyer in five tries.

Fisher took over after Bowden was forced to step down at the end of last season and could have the Seminoles playing for a championship in his first year _ something Bowden, Steve Spurrier, Zook and Meyer failed to do in their first seasons. Florida State has no control over that, though.

The Seminoles need Maryland to beat North Carolina State to clinch the Atlantic Division and a spot in the league title game against No. 13 Virginia Tech next weekend.

It would be Florida State’s first berth in the ACC title game since 2005.

A win against the Gators might be even more important. It sure would be for those seniors who are winless against their in-state rival.

“The biggest goal was to win the state of Florida, and obviously we beat Miami, so to beat Florida would be big,” quarterback Christian Ponder said. “Us seniors, or anyone on the team, hasn’t experienced a win over Florida and this is our last time as seniors to do it. It would be pretty big for us, but it’s not going to be easy.”

The Gators want nothing more than to extend Florida State’s series misery, especially in Tallahassee.

A victory would give Florida wins against its three biggest rivals _ Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State _ and improve Meyer’s record in those games to 17-1. It also probably would lock the Gators into a New Year’s Day bowl, possibly the Outback but more likely the Gator.

“One of the biggest games of my career, especially this season,” defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. “Don’t want to be the team to lose to this team under Coach Meyer, that’s for sure. Don’t want to be the first one, so it has a lot of meaning to me. We want to go out strong, win this game and get a better bowl game. We all know it’s important. He doesn’t really have to say much.”

A win also would do wonders for Florida’s confidence after an up-and-down season in which players struggled, coaches were criticized and fans have become increasingly frustrated with every failed dive play. So the Gators have a chance to silence some critics, and maybe more important to Meyer, make headway on the recruiting trail.

“There are a lot of guys on the fence right now,” Meyer said.

Recruiting means little to the guys on the field, though.

“I think if you were to ask 99 percent of the team, it’s about pride,” Sanders said. “Yeah, we want to get to a better bowl game. But for the most part, it’s about pride. Nobody wants to lose, especially last game of the season and with it being a big-time rival like this.”

The streak makes the game even more enticing.

“They’ve won a bunch of games in a row and we have to get back in this rivalry and make it very competitive,” Fisher said. “Florida has always been a significant player in the national title hunt and for championships, just like Florida State was for many years. When you’re learning to compete with those folks, it means you’re taking steps in the right direction to get back to where you want to go.”

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