UF, Iowa seek redemption, momentum
Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:56 p.m.
This New Year's Day bowl game isn't about top-10 finishes and national championship aspirations. It's about momentum.
Florida and Iowa have it and want to keep it, hang onto it and carry it into the offseason and the 2004 season.
Both teams know what it's like to see momentum stall on the first few hours of a new year.
The Gators stumbled in last year's Outback Bowl, falling to Michigan, while the Hawkeyes saw their great 2002 season end with a thud in a one-sided loss to Southern Cal in the Orange Bowl.
Florida and Iowa - two relatively inexperienced teams facing lower expectations heading into 2003 - have rebounded and regained late-season momentum.
Today's game will determine who gets to keep it.
"It means a whole lot," senior All-American UF cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "We want to send the young guys off to the offseason the right way. We know how it feels after you've lost a game and how it feels after you win one. You feel a whole lot better going into the offseason, the spring and the summer when you win one. You feel good about your teammates and you go into the offseason excited, happy and confident."
Also figuring into the motivation for Florida is the fact the Gators will end up with the identical record (8-5) of a year ago if they don't win today. For a team that's convinced it's appreciably better than a season ago, the only way the Gators can prove it is with a victory and a 9-4 finish.
"A lot of people say we're the same team as last year," senior wide receiver Kelvin Kight said. "If we don't win, that's what the record will show. We want to win this game for the program, for coach (Ron) Zook and for the seniors and show everybody we're not the same team as last year, we're a lot better.
"This could give the program a real momentum boost and give us something to build on for next year."
The Hawkeyes would like to do likewise - and achieve atonement for last January's flat performance in Miami.
"Last year's bowl game was rough because we didn't play to our capabilities," senior Iowa defensive tackle Jared Clauss said. "I don't think it's about last year, it's about this year, it's about getting our 10th win. It's about playing a great SEC team that is the best four-loss team in the country."
The Hawkeyes say they are taking a much more serious approach to this year's bowl game than last. At the Orange Bowl, the Iowa players went to South Beach, hit the hot night spots and had their share of bowl fun. In Tampa, the Hawkeyes haven't strayed far from the team hotel.
"A lot of guys are sticking around the hotel and watching film instead of going out with their families and relaxing and having fun," senior outside linebacker Grant Steen said. "I think we learned a lot from last year's experience, from the coaches all the way down through the players.
"This is only the second year in a row (Iowa has played in a New Year's Day bowl game). Any time you play a school from Florida, you're going to get some recognition. If we can go out there, play hard and get a win, it will be a great thing for the university and for next season."
Like the Hawkeyes, the Gators say they are treating this matchup more like a critical regular-season game than a bowl game.
"This definitely has a big-game feel to it for us," Kight said. "This is just like an SEC game or any other big game on our schedule and we're treating it that way. We've had good practices down here and we'll be ready to play.
"Iowa is a great team, but we just have to come out and play our game and do the things we need to do to keep us in the game. Hopefully, we'll come out victorious."
A loss certainly would distract from all the good things the Gators accomplished coming down the stretch. After losing to Mississippi to fall to 3-3, UF appeared on the brink of having its first losing season since 1979, the 0-10-1 year.
The Gators rallied and upset LSU, Arkansas and Georgia in consecutive games. The only blemish since early in October was the four-point loss to Florida State in the regular-season finale in The Swamp.
"I said at the beginning of the year I felt we would be a better football team," Zook said. "I just wasn't sure if our record would show it. The Friday night before the LSU game at our team meeting, I said, 'Is there anybody here who doesn't think we could be 6-0?' We could just as easily have been 6-0 as 3-3.
"From that point on, our players began to realize we do have a chance to be a good football team, and we are a good football team."
UF is hoping to carry that thought into the offseason with a win today.
"It was a great feeling for us as a team to come together and be as one, to be friends and to hang out together and be close," senior safety Daryl Dixon said. "I think (the returning players) can take that and grow with it."
You can reach Robbie Andreu by calling 374-5022 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
OUTBACK on Page 5C Continued from 1C OUTBACK:
Gators seek to reverse finish
More inside AT A GLANCE
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