A return to past glory hangs in the balance

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 4:12 a.m.
There is no shortage of rivalries for the Florida football team, not when your schedule is sprinkled with spikes like Tennessee, Louisiana State, Georgia and Florida State. Today the Gators play at Alabama - proof that you don't need familiarity to breed contempt.
It is a strange rivalry because the two teams hardly ever play, yet there is friction. Florida and Alabama haven't been on the same field in six years, but the players and their fans have been chippy all week.
In fact, in the last 18 years, the teams have played on each other's campuses only four times.
But it is a rivalry because of what happened away from the campuses in the 1990s. Then, Florida and Alabama met five times in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. From 1992 to 1996, it was almost a scheduled game.
And it is a rivalry because Steve Spurrier dared to be Bear. The league was supposed to change him, and he changed the league. He was new school in an old-school league.
As the Gator Nation is well aware, Florida was in the '90s what Alabama was in just about every other decade before - the dominant team in the SEC. It was a sore spot for the Tiders that there was another coach who could be mentioned in the same breath with the guy with the museum.
Paul "Bear" Bryant did what no other SEC coach ever has done. Oh, the audacity of the outsiders of the conference winning championships like they were the Braves and this was the NL East.
Florida's run of six SEC titles in 11 years, plus another that was stripped, still sticks in the craw of the Alabama faithful.
Especially because so many of them came at the Tide's expense.
Old-timers (like me) will remember that Florida was the first team to beat Bryant in the stadium that bears his name. Those newer to the series (which has included only 26 meetings that weren't in the SEC title game) know that Spurrier has always pointed to the 1990 win at Alabama as the propellant to Florida's success during his tenure. Alabama fans remember that he threw the ball on third down with a lead.
Oh, the blasphemy. Then, he turned around after alledgedly predicting a big Florida win in the summer of 1991 and had the unmitigated gall to win 35-0 in Gainesville.
But for these players, it's all fresh and new. Florida is the school that was the bomb when they were kids, the program that fell flat after Spurrier left. Florida is what stands in Alabama's way to respectability. The Tide wants to be what it once was, but also what Florida once was.
Alabama is the school where Bryant coached and dysfunction was king for the first years of this millennium. Alabama, likewise, is in Florida's way. Florida wants to be what it once was, what Alabama was.
When you think about it, that's something that makes the rekindling of this rivalry perfect in its timing. Here is Florida, Urban Meyer at the helm and 4-0 for the first time in four years, trying to stay in the rarified air that used to be part of its normal breathing process but lately has been suffocating. Here is Alabama, ready to tell the world that the Tide are rolling again.
All each team has to do is beat the other. In that way, it's a shame this wasn't later in the season. Like in December in Atlanta.
Then and there, they played some classics. Maybe there will be a rematch in the Georgia Dome, the way there was in 1999. It's unlikely, but there is no question that the winner becomes the favorite for its respective division and the loser faces an uphill battle.
With LSU losing already and Auburn looking less than impressive, Bama fans are frothing at the idea of winning the West for the first time in six years. With a win over Tennessee already secured and LSU looking less formidable, the Gator Nation knows what clearing this hurdle will mean.
In other words, there is a lot on the line today. Just like the old days, the not-so-distant past that seems like so long ago, back when this rivalry was truly hatching.
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear The Pat Dooley Hour each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon on The Star 99.5-FM.

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