On Sunday, six days before the Game, a tent village hummed with anticipation in the shadow of Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, as Florida State students queued up for probably the most prized ticket they would ever use. Already the energy was growing, feeding off the rare combustion of neighbors playing football for the very highest stakes, No. 1 Florida facing No. 2 Florida State on the last Saturday in November. "One versus two, right here in Florida," said Seminoles senior wideout Andre Cooper. "That's a lifetime dream right there."
The two schools, separated by 149 miles of flat highway, have played each other annually for 38 years. Theirs is a rivalry pockmarked by stubborn beginnings (Florida didn't want any part of playing Florida State, which had been a women's college until 1947, but state politicians forced the Gators' hand), social rancor (Florida fans think they're so much smarter, richer and classier than Seminoles fans that the Tallahassee chapter of the Gators' booster club has as its motto. Civilization among the savages) and uneven stakes (one team has always needed the game just a little more than the other).
Even as they have become dominant teams in the 1990s, first Florida State under Bobby Bowden and then Florida under Steve Spurrier, their paths have never crossed at quite the right time. Never have the Seminoles and the Gators met while both were ranked so high and while both sported unblemished records. Florida, with a 10-0 record, has been lodged at No. 1 since late September. Florida State, also 10-0, rose from No. 3 to No. 2 following Ohio State's upset loss to Michigan last Saturday. The winner this Saturday will be No. 1; the loser all but falls out of the chase for the national championship. It is single elimination between brothers, the most significant game in determining the national champion.
Late Sunday afternoon, Bowden hustled into the Florida State athletic complex and stopped at the elevator that would take him to his office and a long night of preparation. "A matter of time till this happened," said Bowden. "Yes, it was, a matter of time." He punched a button and disappeared behind the closing doors.
The game will be a matter of matchups and emotions, of strategies and split-second decisions. Five factors will decide the winner:
1. The Florida State pass rush
Florida senior Danny Wuerffel's toughness and his compatibility with Spurrier's pass-happy system have made him not only one of the most effective quarterbacks in college football history—he's thrown 105 career touchdown passes and is the alltime NCAA Division I-A passing-efficiency leader—but also the likely Heisman Trophy winner. The Gators carve up teams that drop seven or eight men into coverage in hopes of confusing Wuerffel, and they rain touchdowns on teams that blitz. In the last two seasons only Nebraska has stopped Florida. In their 62-24 pasting of the Gators in last January's Fiesta Bowl, the Cornhuskers sacked Wuerffel seven times, using occasional blitzes but mostly getting to him with swift outside rushes by defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich and a consistent inside push from tackles Christian Peter and Jason Peter. "It's the ideal thing, to get to him with four men," says Bowden.
Florida State, which is ranked first in the nation in total defense, has the personnel to try. A crucial matchup will pit Florida's wounded offensive line against the Seminoles' front four, a unit led by menacing ends Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware, who between them have 68 career sacks. "You have to worry more about their ends than anything else on their football team defensively," says North Carolina coach Mack Brown, whose team lost to Florida State 13-0 on Sept. 28.
The pressure will be on the Gators' offensive line: Because of injuries (senior center Jeff Mitchell is out with a broken leg, and sophomore left tackle Zach Piller is questionable with a sprained leg) and the mid-season, six-game suspension of sophomore right tackle Mo Collins, Florida has started five combinations up front and is likely to start a sixth on Saturday. "Not the way we would have scripted it," says senior right guard Donnie Young. Either Piller or redshirt freshman Cooper Carlisle will line up across from Boulware; Collins will face Wilson.
Wuerffel will get more pressure from fewer men than he has since the Nebraska loss. Expect Spurrier to double-team Boulware or Wilson with his tight end—"You can't single-block those guys," says North Carolina State junior fullback Carlos King—and counter by running more than usual. The Gators have rushed the ball on 53.4% of their offensive plays, more than any of Spurrier's other Florida teams. "Those [defensive] ends take wide splits," says Gators wideout Reidel Anthony. "We can run it right up inside them."