When Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher replaced the legendary Bobby Bowden prior to the start of the 2010 season, the in-state rivalry between Florida and Florida State was being dominated on an annual basis — by the Gators.
On Saturday, Florida State seniors and Fisher’s first recruiting class will be facing the arch-rival Gators for the final time. The second-ranked Seminoles will arrive in the Swamp as decided favorites and in the four years since Fisher took over as head coach at Florida State, the rivalry has done a 180.
Prior to Fisher’s arrival, Florida had won six straight games in the series and the previous three by an average margin of 30 points. During that stretch, Florida had claimed a pair of SEC titles and two national championships. Florida’s head coach at the time, Urban Meyer, was still regarded as the best in the SEC as Nick Saban and Alabama were still early in their rise as the nation’s premier power.
Florida was in the midst of a disappointing 7-4 season when Fisher got his crack at the Gators in 2010. Florida led 7-3 early, but behind three touchdown passes from Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, the Seminoles scored the game’s final 28 points for a 31-7 victory to snap the six-game skid against their arch-rivals.
Meyer would resign at the end of the season after seven years at Florida and athletic director Jeremy Foley would bring in one of Fisher’s former colleagues at LSU, defensive-minded Will Muschamp.
Muschamp suffered through a 7-6 season in his first as head man at Florida and in the regular season finale against Florida State, the Gators were handled 21-7 despite giving up fewer than 100 yards of offense to Florida State.
Throughout the 1990s, with Steve Spurrier and Bowden at the helms for the Sunshine state rivals, Florida and Florida State played games of national significance on a seemingly annual basis. The rivalry looked to be returning to that place a season ago as the teams met in Tallahassee each ranked in the top 10 and with identical 10-1 records.
Florida used a big day from the ground game and was the beneficiary of five Florida State turnovers in a 37-26 victory. It had appeared as though Muschamp had brought Florida back amongst the nation’s elite and perhaps, the rivalry was of national relevance again for good.
Since then however, the schools have headed in completely opposite directions. The Seminoles were able to bounce back from the loss to their in-state rivals by capturing their first ACC title in seven years and closed the season by topping Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl for their first victory in a BCS bowl since claiming the 1999 national championship.
Florida’s 2012 campaign ended with a 33-23 loss to former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and Big East champion Louisville in a contest that was not as close as the final score indicated. The loss to the Cardinals in the Sugar Bowl seemed to set the stage for Florida’s worst season in decades.
While Florida State has ascended to second in the country thanks to the play of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, a talented corps of playmakers and a defense that is giving up the second fewest points in the country, Florida has had to bear defeats not felt since the end of World War II.
The Seminoles have jumped on opponents from the get-go this season pounding teams on a week-to-week basis. Florida State fought through a lackluster effort against Boston College in late September for a 48-34 victory and since then, has been untouchable. FSU’s biggest statement came at Clemson on October 19th as the Seminoles put up 51 points, the most ever at Death Valley, in a 37-point beat-down of the third-ranked Tigers.
Florida’s season has been marred by injury as key defensive players Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley have missed time. The Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season in September against Tennessee and have been forced to start three different players at that position.
Despite that, the Gators had managed to stay competitive for most of 2013. Florida fell by just three to Georgia, and by five to Miami and South Carolina. Over the last month however, the wheels have come off for Florida.
A 34-17 loss at home to Vanderbilt was the first victory for the Commodores in Gainesville since 1945. Saturday’s 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern was the first for Florida to a current FCS school since 1946 which ensured the Gators’ first losing season in over three decades and their first without a bowl appearance since the pre-Spurrier era.
Though the 4-7 Gators host rival Florida State on Saturday, Florida will be a huge underdog. Florida will be trying to avoid its ninth loss in 13 games — something that would have been unthinkable just several years ago.
Meanwhile at 11-0, Fisher is leading Florida State to its best season in 14 years and perhaps ever. In three of the four seasons prior to Fisher taking over the program, the Seminoles finished with 7-6 records. There is a realistic possibility that Florida State could win 14 games this season.
To say that the Florida-Florida State rivalry is in an odd place at this point is an understatement. While Florida State is finally having the season that fans have waited for for so long, Florida is losing at home to the likes of Georgia Southern.
The fact that Fisher and Muschamp coached together for LSU’s national championship team in 2003 adds an element of intrigue to the rivalry, but Muschamp’s former colleague is dangerously close to running away with a state once dominated by the Gators.
If Muschamp’s Gators are unable to stay competitive with their in-state rival, it could signal the end of a very short era in Gainesville. Firing Muschamp would bring about Florida’s fifth head coach 13 years.
Fisher’s team on the other hand, is starting to mirror the ones coached by the legend that Fisher had the usually unenviable task of replacing. While a win for Florida State on Saturday would be the third in four tries against Florida, it would also mark consecutive wins at the Swamp for the first time since the late 1980s.