Florida carried Ron Zook off the field in his final game, an upset that remains so memorable, people continue to point to that win 10 years later.
Especially this week.
Because everybody wants to know: Can the Gators win one for Champ, the way they won one for the Zooker?
The similarities between Zook’s last triumph over Florida State and the 2014 Gators headed into the Florida State game on Saturday are too similar to ignore.
Both Florida teams 6-4. Both heavy underdogs. Both playing for an outgoing coach.
“We were in the same position those guys are in this year,” said former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a captain on the 2004 team. “Our coach got fired. We hadn’t beaten them in Tallahassee in a very long time, so it made us want to go out there and play for Coach Zook but also win at Doak. It happened to be on the same day they were naming the field for coach (Bobby) Bowden, so we wanted to go up there and upset every celebration they had.”
In the days leading up to the game, nobody gave down-and-out Florida much of a chance against the No. 10 Seminoles. Florida State had one of the best defenses in the country and had shut down just about every running back that came its way.
But Florida believed it had nothing to lose. To the Gators, all the pressure belonged to Florida State.
“Nobody expected us to win, and that just mentally makes you feel like, ‘We can go out here and cut it loose. Don’t worry about mistakes. We can go for it on fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-3 because we’ve got nothing to lose and Florida State has everything to lose,’" Fason said. "As a Gator, we know we’re trying to keep them from get a national championship, and it being a rival game with nothing to lose that works to our advantage.”
Fason also believes the way Florida played in 2004 caught Florida State off guard. He ended up with 100 yards rushing in the game and was a big reason why the Gators won, saying the Seminoles were not prepared for their smash-mouth style.
After Florida took a 10-3 lead into halftime, Fason told his teammates he wanted them to carry Zook off the field if they ended up winning. They assembled around him in the final minute, a 20-13 win theirs to celebrate.
“As soon as that final tick went off the clock, everybody picked up Coach Zook,” Fason said. “It was the best moment of my life.”
And it still remains one of the top moments not only in Gators football history, but in Zook's career. Mike Degory, the starting center on the 2004 team, later coached with Zook at Illinois. Even there, Zook talked about the way the Gators won his final game there.
“He always used to say how much it meant to him, and how much he felt the commitment from the players was there,” Degory recalled. “Everybody knows after this week, Coach Muschamp is going to be looking for another job, but the players feel a lot of commitment to that coach. We wanted to send Coach Zook out a winner. What we had 10 years ago was a connection with Coach Zook. Deep down in my heart, that is the guy that I wanted to play for and we wanted to echo that by giving him that victory.”
Muschamp was even asked about it during his press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.
“That isn't going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that,” he said. “So we'll prepare well and we'll go up there and play well. That's what we need to do.”
Florida has a history of doing that under Muschamp. It was two years ago Florida went into Doak Campbell Stadium and forced five turnovers in a 37-26 win. Florida was a much better team then -- ranked higher than Florida State, in fact. But it also happens to be the last time the Seminoles lost.
Since then, Florida has not come close to another 11-win season, while Jimbo Fisher has won two ACC championships, one national championship and 27 straight games. But this season, Florida State has played in so many close games, the expectation is this will be another close one.
Especially if the Gators play as emotionally as they did for Zook in 2004.
“Emotion always counts, but I think at the end of the day, execution wins,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we'll be emotional. To play Florida, our kids will be high. Our kids will be excited. I think you'll see two teams that are emotionally and physically ready to play, and then who can go out and execute and win the battles in the physical and mental execution will be the team that wins.”
Don't let the record book fool you. The 80,210 seated in Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 26, 1994, and the millions more watching from home will tell you the 31-31 tie between No.4 Florida and No. 7 Florida State belies the reality on the field that afternoon.
In one of the greatest installments of the longtime Florida-Florida State rivalry, the stakes were once again high as both teams were situated in the top 10 at kickoff -- just like the 13 other times from 1990-2000. The Gators, ranked No. 4, were also hoping to match FSU's first national title in '93 with their own in '94.
Florida coach Steve Spurrier, never one to shy away from offering a punch line at the expense of a rival school or coach, stoked the fire earlier in the year when he called FSU "Free Shoes University," referring to a report that agents picked up a $6,000 tab that Seminoles players rang up at a Foot Locker near FSU.
"You respect [Spurrier], but he's like a crazy uncle," Andre Wadsworth, a defensive end on that '94 Noles team, said. "I never did like Florida. Growing up in Miami, I only respected the Canes and FSU. The Gators didn't play [Miami]. I don't care about the excuse of being in the SEC and all that nonsense."
Spurrier has always been good at getting opponents' blood boiling, but up until that point, he had not beaten his cross-state rival in Tallahassee and was 1-3 overall against Bobby Bowden.
"We were aware at that point that Steve had not won in Doak Campbell, and, I don't know if that meant anything to the players, but it meant something to the coaches," said Mickey Andrews, FSU' defensive coordinator from 1984-2010. "Steve, part of his deal, was trying to get under the skin of another coach. Everybody thinks some things, but Steve thinks out loud. I'm sure some of the stuff bothered Coach Bowden."
When looking at the Seminoles, and some of the very key battles Florida State beat Florida on in recent years, it's a clear indication of how impactful difference-maker skill players can be, and how much the 2013 4-8 season for the Gators was a crushing blow to the current Florida offense.
Here are five battles that Florida State won, all of whom will be key players Saturday.
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As always there was a ton of recruiting news from around the Southeastern Conference. There was a big commitment, there were key visits and new offers over the weekend. Here's a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.
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Well, yes. Because the results carry even more significance now that we are in in the College Football Playoff era. Just look at the way the ACC has been dismissed as a conference. Unbeaten Florida State is ranked behind two one-loss teams in the only rankings that matter -- as much an indictment about the Seminoles’ close wins as it is about the perception of the ACC as a whole.
While it has been convenient for many to dismiss what Florida State has accomplished, it has been just as convenient to dismiss the accomplishments of No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 22 Louisville and No. 24 Clemson. But it may be less difficult to do so if all four teams come through and all win this weekend.
The last time Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson swept their SEC rivals was in 2000. The last time they posted a winning record against them was in 2008, when Georgia Tech and Clemson came out victorious. That also happens to be the last time both teams won their SEC rivalry game.
This might be their best shot at a sweep in years. With Kentucky-Louisville now added into the mix, the Cards, Florida State and Clemson are favored to win. All three are at home; all three are the only teams ranked in the matchup. Georgia Tech is the only underdog, though the Jackets go into their game off a bye, with a four-game winning streak under their belts.
To take it one step further, the FPI game projections show:
- Florida State with a predicted 73 percent win percentage over Florida.
- Louisville with a predicted 77 percent win percentage over Kentucky.
- Clemson with a predicted 62.5 percent win percentage over South Carolina.
- Georgia with a predicted 80 percent win percentage over Georgia Tech.
“Winning would help the league a lot but it’s going to be how does the media portray it?” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “When I was here in ’08, my first year, we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina … but nobody said much about it. It was like, ‘Oh.’ Now the next year when they beat us, it was a big deal so would it help the league? Sure. Anytime we can go head to head with the SEC and win a game it helps the league.”
Johnson brings up an excellent point. Will a potential sweep be diminished in value because they are all against SEC East teams? Georgia is the only ranked SEC squad in the group. Florida and South Carolina have been disappointments; Kentucky is not bowl eligible. Georgia is the only school among the four with a winning record in SEC play.
So the East is not even close to its counterparts in the West, creating a no-win situation. If the ACC does well in these games, people may not dish out as much credit as they should. If the ACC winds up with a losing record, get ready for more finger pointing and laughter.
If we are looking a little closer at the matchups, there are two teams that cannot afford to lose: Florida State and Clemson. If Florida pulls the upset, Florida State will be out of the College Football Playoff, the worst result imaginable for a league that only has the Noles in the mix.
The stakes are high for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, too. After beating South Carolina as interim coach in 2008, he has gone 0-5. For the first time since 2009, Clemson will be the only ranked team in the matchup. Clemson has the No. 1 defense in the nation; South Carolina has the No. 87 defense in the nation. While Deshaun Watson’s status remains up in the air, the feeling is that Clemson simply cannot afford to lose this game again, not when it has so many obvious advantages.
“The last five years, we’ve had 15 turnovers and they’ve had three,” Swinney said. “That affects everything. That affects your plays per game, it affects your time of possession, it affects the way things are called, field position, on and on and on and on. That’s definitely something we have to get changed for us to have a chance to win the game. There’s no doubt about it.”
Georgia Tech also has lost five straight to Georgia, and 12 of the last 13. Last season, the Jackets blew an early 20-0 lead and lost 41-34 in double overtime. Todd Gurley scored both overtime touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He won't play Saturday.
While Georgia Tech has a Top 25 ranking and spot in the ACC championship game, a win over Georgia would only add to an already stellar season.
“The atmosphere is different about this week because it’s a must-win game,” Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden said. “You don’t want to give them bragging rights for the next 365 days. You just have to hear it over and over again that you can’t beat them. It’s one of those games you look forward to playing.”
It’s one of those games that has to fall in the ACC win column this year.
The regular season ends this week, and it’s poised to close with a flourish as both the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl have SEC and national implications.
Let’s take a quick look at some of this week’s top storylines in the SEC.
Game of the week: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Auburn
Auburn just isn't a good football team right now. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tigers threw in the towel against Georgia. Meanwhile, Alabama has come on strong of late, winning close games against LSU and then-No. 1 Mississippi State. So the Iron Bowl should be a blowout, right? Maybe. Because when it comes to rivalry games, you can throw out the records. Alabama is playing for a spot in the SEC championship game while Auburn has nothing to lose. Sounds like a recipe for something strange to happen, right?
The last time we saw Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott on the national stage, it wasn’t pretty. He played arguably his worst game of the year against Alabama as his three interceptions led to the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season and a total knockout of his own Heisman Trophy hopes. In fact, eight of his 10 picks this season have come in his last six games. So it goes without saying that he needs to rebound. That started on Saturday against Vanderbilt, but the real test will come during the nationally televised Egg Bowl. If he plays well and helps beat Ole Miss, the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes remain alive.
This is it for Will Muschamp. His four tumultuous seasons at Florida will come to a close on Saturday. But what will be the final note of Muschamp’s tenure? Against No. 3 Florida State, it could be wild. It could be an upset. After all, it’s not like the Seminoles are dominant this year. As Louisville, Miami and Boston College have shown us, FSU is beatable. Now will Florida actually do it? Maybe not, but how crazy would that be if it happened in Muschamp’s final game?
Storyline to watch: Who will win the East?
There's nothing Georgia can do about it. If Missouri wins on Saturday, the Eastern Division title will go to the Tigers for a second consecutive season. But a win is far from guaranteed as Missouri must host the suddenly red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's squad has come on strong this season, knocking on the door against the likes of Georgia and Alabama before finally breaking it in the past two weeks with wins over LSU and Ole Miss. So how will Shane Ray and the rest of the Missouri defense handle Alex Collins and the Arkansas running game? And how will Maty Mauk take care of the football against an Arkansas defense that forced Ole Miss into four turnovers this past weekend? A win for Missouri would win a trip to Atlanta. A loss would give Georgia the pleasure.
Intriguing matchup: Alabama front seven vs. Auburn zone-read
Alabama’s defense has been stout up the middle. Just ask Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State, as the three power running teams had little success between the tackles against the Tide, averaging a combined 3.04 yards per carry. That’s due in no small part to Alabama’s size up front with big linemen like Brandon Ivory and physical inside linebackers like Trey DePriest. But Auburn’s zone-read attack is a different animal. While there’s power components to Gus Malzahn’s offense, it’s predicated on speed, too. Against the fleet-footed Nick Marshall and Corey Grant, Alabama’s front seven will have to pay close attention to the running lanes and not give Auburn room to run on the outside.
Week 14 Picks: Florida-Florida State
12:00 PM ET South Carolina 21 Clemson 12:00 PM ET 16 Georgia Tech 9 Georgia 12:00 PM ET Kentucky 22 Louisville 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Florida State 3:30 PM ET 4 Mississippi State 19 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Tennessee Vanderbilt 7:45 PM ET 15 Auburn 1 Alabama