TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- They used to play each year with a chance for a national championship at stake. This time, they play simply to earn a month of peace and quiet.
A meaningless game between Florida and Florida State? Hardly.
Between them, they have seven losses, two coaches feeling the heat, and a handful of touchy quarterback problems.
Saturday's winner probably will get a well-deserved break from all the negativity. The loser surely will be subjected to griping straight through bowl season.
"I think it does mean a lot," Gators first-year coach Ron Zook said, dismissing the fact that neither team is in the top 10 for this game for the first time since 1986.
"It means a lot to both programs, means a lot to the players, to the seniors, to the coaching staffs."
As they prepare for 23rd-ranked Florida State (8-4), the 15th-ranked Gators (8-3) are still in line for a 10-win season.
Among Zook's biggest missteps since replacing Steve Spurrier have been losing a pair of home games, to Miami and LSU, by a combined 54 points. He also helped design an offense that transformed Rex Grossman, a junior who could be playing his last regular-season game for the Gators, from a Heisman Trophy candidate to a middle-of-the-pack quarterback, at least statistically.
Zook failed to lead the Gators to a Southeastern Conference title. His coaching style was in part responsible for keeping victories over overmatched teams like Vanderbilt and Kentucky close to the very end.
Despite all that, the Gators are on a four-game winning streak.
Beat Florida State, and all could still be forgiven in the leadup to Florida's appearance in either the Capital One or Outback Bowl. Zook could, after all, snap a 16-year winless streak in Tallahassee.
"There's a lot of noise in the system at a university like the University of Florida," Zook said, referring to the media and fans who have been openly critical this year. "That's part of what makes it the best job in the country."
Of course, Florida's troubles seem minor compared to what the Seminoles have been through, especially this week.
The program is in shock after Monday's dismissal of quarterback Adrian McPherson, who later was arrested on charges of stealing a blank check and receiving nearly $3,500 after it was cashed.
"Personally, I'm very disappointed, very disappointed; nearly to the point of apologetic - not that it would do any good," coach Bobby Bowden said. "That's the way I feel right now."
The quarterback job goes to Chris Rix, the disappointing sophomore benched last month in the wake of an ugly locker-room blowup after a 34-24 loss to Notre Dame.
"Something has to be done. You got to make some changes. I've got a little niece, 3 years old, who could make some changes like that," Darnell Dockett said after Rix threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the loss.
Also after that game, defensive end Alonzo Jackson let loose with a tirade and was escorted out of the locker room by a teammate.
At the start of the season, Bowden came under scrutiny for making "Let's Roll" the slogan for his team, playing off the words Todd Beamer spoke from a phone aboard hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
Back then, it seemed like that would be only a minor hiccup in a season full of great expectations. Florida State was the third-ranked team in the preseason AP poll, Rix was touted as a Heisman candidate and the Seminoles thought they would make a run at the national championship.
As it turned out, Florida State won the Atlantic Coast Conference and will make a trip to either the Sugar or Orange Bowl.
But after a 17-7 loss to North Carolina State last week, the Seminoles have been forced to defend themselves for taking such a prestigious bowl trip.
"We've kind of been faced with that question before," Bowden said. "My answer would be: This is the way the system works and by the system, we're able to go to the bowl."
Still, the Seminoles are staring at a possible six-loss season and after all the turmoil, the 73-year-old Bowden is fielding more and more questions about his possible retirement.
The coach says he's not thinking about quitting just yet.
As for the rest of the mess: "I just hate it," he said. "It doesn't get any easier."
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