For the first time in years, the Florida-Florida State rivalry game has year-end importance with both teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS Standings and fighting for the chance to clutch the crystal ball.
Currently No. 4 in the BCS Standings, the Gators must beat the Seminoles and then need only a Notre Dame loss to USC on Saturday to all but assure a berth in the title game.
After a 6-6 regular season in 2011-12, to even be in the discussion this late in the season is a feat in and of itself. In just his second year after replacing Urban Meyer as UF's coach, Will Muschamp has his team nearing the precipice it reached twice under Meyer. That's a big deal.
Still, when speaking to media Monday morning, senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter and senior linebacker Jon Bostic said they weren't aware of the Gators' ranking, trying to dismiss any question related to potential national championship scenarios.
Asked if the Gators deserved a shot at the title if they beat the Seminoles on Saturday, Hunter said: "I don't even worry about that stuff. I
didn't even know we were No. 4. I thought it was like 21 or something
like that. I didn't even know we were No. 4. Somebody just told
me we were No. 4. I didn't even know that."
Hunter said he doesn't watch the television show that releases the rankings on Sunday nights. He also said he hasn't heard a word from teammates about the BCS.
"Everything's been Florida State this week," he said.
For Bostic, he said he went to sleep Sunday night not knowing where Florida stood in the new BCS Standings.
"A lot of it is controlled outside of here," he said. "We’re going to control what we can control."
A reporter then asked Bostic a hypothetical question -- If the Gators were to beat the Seminoles on Saturday should they be considered worthy of a shot at the national title? -- and, again, his response toed the company line.
"We’re just going to try and go up to
Tallahassee and play like we've been playing all season and let the rest
play out for itself."
Later, a different reporter tried to lob Bostic a softball of a question about not focusing on the BCS because none of the conjecture would matter if the Gators don't win this weekend. Again, he didn't bite.
"Nah, I mean it’s another game for us," he said.
Thinking Bostic must of misunderstood the question, the reporter interupted his response, rephrasing the question and attempting it again. Again, Bostic repeated the words he has been coached to say.
"No, I mean it’s another game for us," he said. "That’s how we look at it."
To those who follow the Gators, it shouldn't come as a surprise that
players this week are not gushing about the team's chances at making to
the BCS National Championship Game in Miami in January.
Like his coaching mentor Nick Saban, Muschamp would never allow it. He preaches a week-by-week approach where
each game is the most important "because it's the next one." During
fall camp last year, his first as a head coach, Muschamp declared that
there would be "one voice" -- his -- speaking on behalf of the program, meaning the message would be the same no matter who delivered it.
To that end, Muschamp has gone to great lengths to control what gets said about his program. Florida makes available each week offensive coordinator Brent Pease and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, experienced coaches who have dealt with media throughout respective long coaching careers and who will not answer any questions pertaining to injuries under Muschamp's instruction. None of the Gators' seven positional assistants are made available at any time during the season or offseason. And, like many programs and coaches around the nation, Florida and Muschamp restrict which players can speak to the media. Freshmen are not allowed to talk under any circumstance, and there is a list of players "approved" to speak during interview times, although none of them are required to do so.
That creates an atmosphere where the same players begrudingly deliver the same message each week. No players exemplify that more than Bostic and Hunter. It can be boring at times, but that's what Muschamp wants. And although you can certainly expect more of the same this week with everything on the line, it's hard to argue with the results: Florida is 10-1 and in the hunt for a national title, and Muschamp was named Monday as a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club's Collegiate Coach of the Year Award.
Why change now?
For comparison's sake, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher makes four weekly appearances with local media in addition to his obligatory ACC coaches teleconference. And he has an open period for media during at least one practice each week. But Fisher does not make any assistant coaches available at any time, and offensive coordinator James Coley and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops speak only at the team's preseason media day. And his players seem to toeing the same company line as Muschamp's this week.
On the other hand, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly openly admitted to cheering while watching Kansas State and Oregon lose on Saturday night, which opened the door for his Irish to be the new No. 1 team in the nation. And star tight end Tyler Eifert was refreshingly honest about what winning a national championship would do for the program.
"It would mean a lot, especially to the entire university," Eifert said. "Notre Dame, I don't know, has kind of lost its
reputation, as far as how good we've been in past years. To be able to
restore that reputation will be huge."
Sound familiar? Probably not, because no Florida player would ever say that. But swap the university name in that quote, and it describes precisely where the Gators find themselves right now.
So which approach is right: Deny what's out there in an attempt to focus on the task at hand? Or embrace it and move forward knowing that words don't have much of an impact once you step between the lines?
We'll find out this weekend.