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Can FSU ruin UF's perfect season

Photo by Phil Coale

Photo by Phil Coale

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All signs point to another lopsided affair.

Top-ranked Florida has a higher-rated offense than Florida State, a considerably better defense and more at stake when the in-state rivals meet for the 52nd consecutive year today. The Gators (11-0) have the nation's longest winning streak (21 games), have won five straight in the series and are trying to put together the program's first perfect season.

Could the Seminoles (6-5) mess it all up?

"You never know," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "That's what makes it exciting. That's what makes it fun. All these big rivals play and you never know. A lot of times it's a good game and it shouldn't have been a good game."

The last two have been routs, with Florida winning by a combined score of 90-27. The Gators totaled 1,075 yards, 51 first downs and their most points in a two-year span against FSU since 1972 and '73.

Many believe this one could be just as bad, maybe even worse. The Seminoles have an undersized defensive line, a porous secondary and have given up 332 points -- the most in Bowden's 33 years. Although E.J. Manuel has been effective in two starts, he also has throw four interceptions.

"We're getting closer," Bowden said. "Next year, we should be neck and neck. ... I think we'll be able to compete next year."

The oddsmakers must feel the same. Florida State is a 24 -point underdog in a rivalry that used to be as much about national championships as bragging rights and recruiting battles.

Players and coaches insist little has changed, though.

"A lot of people say the rivalry's changed," Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "If you look back in the '90s, this game pretty much was the game that decided who was going to the national championship. Even though we've been the most successful the past couple years, that still doesn't change how we approach the rivalry as far as the way we prepare.

"Just because Florida State had a bad year, we know that'd make their season to beat us. Even though they're having a bad season, just because we beat them we won't be like, 'It's Florida State, they're sorry anyway or whatever.' It'll feel real good to beat them just because it's Florida State."

A win Saturday would be special.

Not only would it give Florida its second undefeated regular season in school history and set up a national championship elimination game against No. 2 Alabama the following week in the Southeastern Conference title game, it would give quarterback Tim Tebow, linebacker Brandon Spikes and about 20 other seniors a victory in their final home game.

The seniors, who have more wins (46) than any class in SEC history, will be honored before the game. Tebow certainly will get most of the attention; several groups spent the week urging everyone to wear eye black in honor of the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner's home finale.

Tebow and his fellow seniors don't want to disappoint the 90,000-plus fans who will watch them play in person for the last time.

"There's something extra about winning a rivalry game, especially against Florida State," senior receiver David Nelson said. "It's Senior Day for us. It's your last chance to run into The Swamp. It will be your last chance to sing the fight song with the student section.

"There's a lot of things that we can accomplish by winning this game. It's a rivalry, undefeated, your last game at The Swamp, so there's a lot of motivation for us."

The Seminoles eked out a win against Maryland last week to become bowl eligible for the 33rd consecutive season. Although there's still plenty of talk about Bowden's uncertain future, a victory in Gainesville probably would bolster his case for sticking around another year.

Another blowout might flame the fire under Bowden's seat.

Bowden recalled several upsets in this series, specifically the one in 2004, when the Ron Zook-coached Gators beat FSU 20-13 on the night the Doak Campbell Stadium field was named after Bowden. Could the Seminoles return the favor by ruining Florida's season Saturday?

"I don't even want to think about that," Stamper said. "That would be a bad, bad day around here."

Bowden believes things have to turn sooner or later.

"There were times we beat them four in a row and they beat us five or six in a row," he said. "It will change. Nothing lasts forever."