Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 11:40 p.m.
TAMPA - For these two storied programs, there is something comfortable and familiar about playing on New Year's Day. But, certainly, this is not the city and the bowl game where they envisioned kicking off 2003 when this season started way back in August.
The Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines had much bigger plans, plans for maybe the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe. Or at least the Orange in Miami, the Sugar in New Orleans or the Rose in Pasadena - one of the coveted BCS bowls.
But slightly disappointing seasons have led them here, to Tampa, to the Outback Bowl, where the 11 a.m. kickoff is the obvious indication that this game is a notch below the major bowls, and a step down for two programs that have won national championships in the past six years.
So, the game plan now?
Make the most of the opportunity that's here.
This could be called the Getback Bowl because this is a chance for either the Gators or Wolverines to start getting back to where they once were.
The winner will head into the new year with a positive feeling and a chance to start building momentum for the 2003 season.
For the loser, there will be more frustration and another loss to end a mediocre season.
"It's a very big game," UF coach Ron Zook said. "We're a first-year staff and we've become a very close team. It's important for us. We want to continue to improve. This game can have a big impact on the offseason and next season. A win and you feel good about yourself and your program and the way things are going.
"This is the biggest game of our lives because it's our next game. It's very important for us to win this game."
The Wolverines have the same sense of urgency after going 9-3 and, like Florida, finishing the regular season with a loss to their archrival, Michigan's second consecutive loss to Ohio State.
"This has given us a great opportunity to motivate our young players and give us an opportunity to prepare for next season," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "There's a much greater emphasis now on winning bowl games. The most important part of our focus has been trying to prepare for Florida.
"You don't want to end the season with a loss. You want to go in that locker room after the game and sing 'The Victors' (UM's fight song)."
A victory certainly would be big for Michigan. It would give the Wolverines a 10-win season, satisfy alumni and put UM in a position to likely start the 2003 season in the top 10.
This season, Michigan lost to Notre Dame by two points on the road and by five points to No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus. UM's only poor performance came in a 34-9 loss to Iowa at home.
"That's a very good football team," Zook said of Michigan. "Our players are aware of that."
Carr seems equally impressed by Florida, which came only a few plays away from playing for the SEC title. UF's major blunders came early in the season with ugly back-to-back losses to Ole Miss and LSU.
"Defensively, Florida gives you more looks, more disguises, more coverages than anybody we've seen," Carr said. "They're as good as they are on defense because they don't give up big plays. Any time you don't give up big plays, you have a chance to win.
"Offensively, the way they spread you out with different formations and different personnel groupings, it stresses your players. The offense is designed to take what the defense gives them.
"In the last last four or five games, (UF quarterback) Rex Grossman has played extremely well. And the guy who really scares me is (tailback) Earnest Graham. He's an outstanding football player. Florida gives you matchup problems."
This also could be called the Goodbye Bowl because this will be the last game for UF defensive coordinator John Thompson and linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Odom, and for Michigan defensive line coach Brady Hoke, the brother of former UF defensive coordinator Jon Hoke.
Thompson is the new head coach at East Carolina and his first defensive coordinator will be Odom. Hoke is the new head coach at Ball State.
There's also a good chance this will be the final game for Grossman, who will decide shortly after today's game whether to enter the NFL Draft or return for his senior season.
Grossman said Monday he's still undecided about what he'll do.
"I've gotten Rex a lot of information," Zook said. "I called a lot of people to get information for Rex. Rex knows what I want and what this team wants. He has to make a decision that's best for him.
"I've tried to give Rex and his father as much information as I can from talking to people in the NFL. They have to weigh it and make the decision. Rex will do what's best for him. I told Rex the other day, 'No matter what you do, you and I will always be friends. We'll always talk.' "
Several former Florida players will be on the sideline for today's game, including Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher. "I may try to get him in there if I get a chance," Zook said.
For Florida seniors and perhaps a couple of juniors, today will be the last time they pull on a Gator jersey and take the field for Florida.
For safety Todd Johnson, it seems hard to believe.
"It has gone by too fast," Johnson said. "But it will be exciting to see what coach Zook does here after I'm gone. It'll be exciting to see it from a different perspective."
Michigan quarterback John Navarre has heard his share of criticism during his career at Ann Arbor, something he says used to bother him.
"You get used to it," he said. "People come up and say things, leave you phone messages, e-mails. You see it in the newspapers and hear it on the radio. But before this season, I realized you have to focus on what is really important."
The worst thing anyone ever said to Navarre?
"Someone told me I should be playing badminton," he said. "I guess that was about the worst."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 374-5022.
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