For UF, OSU, 2006 seems like a long time ago


Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:40 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE — It wasn’t that long ago. Seems like it was. That’s the way it is in college football where you are only as good as your last game.

It was so different then. The press conferences were held in ballrooms, not on the 50-yard line of a transformed soccer field like Ohio State’s was Wednesday. The game was the ultimate, the end of a season instead of thrown into the mix on a day full of games.

Florida and Ohio State played for it all at the end of the 2006 season. And just five years later, they find themselves playing a game with more to lose than to gain.

The loser of Monday’s Gator Bowl will have a losing record. It would be Florida’s first since 1979, Ohio State’s first since 1988. And since there are no ties in college football, someone is going home with history made the wrong way.

Ohio State will try to avoid leaving Jacksonville with a scarlet “L”. Florida will try to take the bus ride home without the numbing knowledge of a 2-7 record in its last 9 games.

Got chills yet?

The truth is, these players wouldn’t even be at a bowl this good if not for their brands.

“We don’t see this as a bad bowl game,” said Ohio State tight end Reid Fragel.

After what they’ve been through, a week at the Sawgrass Marriott must seem like winning the lottery.

Still, it’s not what they expected when the season started.

Six-and-six?

Losing record in the conference?

A bowl game with empty seats?

“I couldn’t have seen this coming,” said Ohio State offensive lineman Andrew Norwell. “But we’ve been handling adversity all season.”

Five years ago, they were the focus of college football for a month. This week, they are a throw-in at the end of a bowl pool. It’s not just that these two teams have been evicted from the mountaintop. It’s that they can’t see it from Jacksonville.

Florida’s descent was more gradual, a two-year slide. Ohio State’s was so sudden it needed a heat shield for re-entry into mediocrity.

We’ve spent the second half of the season dissecting what went wrong at Florida. Recruiting misses, bad breaks, brutal schedule, injuries. The transition year to Will Muschamp was tougher than anybody thought it would be.

With Ohio State, it seems less subtle.

While Florida fans have seen the air go out of their tires through a slow leak, Ohio State fans feel like they’ve been shoved off a cliff.

Certainly, the events of the last year would lead anybody to expect a drop-off for the Buckeyes. You lose a coach, lose key players, lose your swagger and respectability, it’s going to show on the field.

Then hand the keys of the program over to a young deer and shine the headlights on him and this is what you get.

Six-and-six.

Luke Fickell is a bright, energetic defensive coordinator. I’m not sure how many people could have handled the situation he was thrust into with any more class. But he clearly wasn’t ready to be the head coach at the Ohio State University. He struggled with the responsibilities. He had so much to deal with on a daily basis that his head began to swim.

I asked him on Wednesday as he was walking though the property at the team hotel about how difficult this year has been.

“Yeah,” he said. “They keep you grounded.”

He was looking at two of his four children who were excited that they saw a squirrel.

On Wednesday, I asked Fickell again about the last eight months.

“I’m not the guy who is going to step back and look at it yet,” he said. “Any season is a grind. It’s tough, but that’s what a season is about.”

On Monday, it ends for two teams that have tasted as much disappointment as some of their predecessors did in their entire careers.

And 2006 seems like a long time ago.

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