Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When It Was Over, Last Time

Yes, I’m so excited by the start of college football that my pants are nearly on fire.

However this year, the start of college football does come with a little twinge of regret.

My Gators cannot do any better this year then they did last. (Absent perhaps an undefeated year…)

As of now, Florida is the defending champion. And with the two basketball titles, it has been an incredible ride.

In all likelihood, that ride is over.

I remember vividly the last time the ride came to an abrupt and unsatisfactory end.

(If you are the sensitive Gator type, I urge you not to read on).

The year was 1997, and the Gators were still basking in their merciless rump smacking of hated rival FSU (52-20, Oh my that still looks good).

Although the national champion quarterback of the year before had departed, a presumably talented successor held the reigns of the Florida offense. The national polls had the defending champions highly ranked in the preseason, with the Gators 2nd in the AP poll, and 1st in the USA Today/ESPN Poll.

The parallels are eerie.

Florida dispatched two overmatched opponents to begin the season – Southern Mississippi 21-6, and Central Michigan 82-6 (Yes, that is 82 – still a record).

On September 20th, the 4th ranked Tennessee Volunteers came to Gainesville to play the then 1st/3rd ranked Gators (USA Today/AP). Florida sent the Vols packing 33-20.

High scoring wins followed against Kentucky (55-28) and Arkansas (56-7).

Florida, now firmly ranked number 1 in both polls, was set to travel to Baton Rouge and “Death Valley” on October 11th against the 4-1 and 14th ranked LSU Tigers. A good friend of mine decided to have his bachelor party that weekend in New Orleans, and coordinate it with the LSU game.

Winning was a foregone conclusion.

A sizeable busload of us bachelors traveled from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on Saturday October 11th to watch the Gators. From the onset, something wasn’t quite right. The much vaunted Spurrier offense was simply not clicking. LSU jumped to a 14-0 lead, and was up 14-7 at the half.

Surely Spurrier could get them going.

The second half started promisingly, with the Gators tying the score on the first possession.

Disaster struck with 11:40 remaining in the 4th quarter, when a Doug Johnson pass was intercepted for a 31 yard touchdown. On the very next play, Florida’s Bo Carroll fumbled the kickoff, turning the ball over to LSU on the UF 30. The Tigers scored to make the game 28-14.
The very moment it ended
Two plays, and number 1 was over.

Fred Taylor would score to make the final a UF loss 28-21.

LSU fans stormed the field, taking down both goalposts.

To this day I have never seen a sight quite like it. Night in Baton Rouge, 80,000 plus rabid “well-fueled” Tiger fans, a field covered by triumphant purple and gold.

When some of the fans looked to be of the mind to collect a few Gator trophies, we headed for the exits.

Triumphant Tiger Fans in 1997

Between October 11th 1997 and last year, Florida would only be ranked 1st in the polls a single week (October 2001, which would end similarly disastrously at Auburn). For a coach with 5 SEC titles in 7 years, there would be but one more in 2000.

On my office wall there is a framed cover of the January 3rd 1997 Gainesville Sun. The headline is simple – “NO. 1”.

Under that headline is a second article entitled “Gators’ return time a bit foggy”. The authors were talking about when the team would return to Gainesville from New Orleans, of course, but over the past decade I have often seen a second meaning in that lesser headline.

And until January 8th of last year, the return time to a national title was indeed foggy.

Will it end this year again in the inhospitable “Death Valley”, as many seem to think? If the Gators are undefeated by then, the media will surely be making parallels.

Or will it end someplace else?

Perhaps waiting a bit longer for the season to start isn’t so painful.

7 comments:

LeftLeaningLady said...

Awwww, you are breaking my heart. It was a good post, heartfelt, interesting. But I had already faced the fact that there is a good chance we will not be National Champions this year. Let's not focus on the LSU game. Let's whip some Vol butt first, ok?

Mergz said...

lll,

Sorry to break your heart :)

These are what you might call "Emotional Protection Posts". If I get the pain out now, it will be less then.

In the meantime, I'm all for whippin' Vol butt.

Senator Blutarsky said...

Well, speaking strictly for myself, there were some parts of the '97 season that I remember quite fondly.

A little bit of a parallel wouldn't bother me at all. ;)

Mergz said...

blutarsky -

Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Let's try to be a little more optimistic. Think of what our pals in Columbus did last year with a star quarterback and receiver while replacing 9 starters on defense. Let me remind some of you of the recruits we have had over the past two years. And to take it a step further, Our secondary was suspect in the preseason last year(except of course, Reggie). I think this seasopn will surprise many doubters.

Mergz said...

anon-

It's not so much about being pessimistic, as it is trying to appreciate the moment, as well as the incredible achievements Gator sports have made recently.

I have wild hopes for this season, like every other. But sometime it will end. And I want to enjoy the glow just a little longer.

Henry Gomez said...

I saw that game at Dan Marino's bar in Coconut Grove. There were a couple of "well-fueled" lady LSU fans there that shrieked every time something positive happened for the Bayou Bengals. LSU is one of those teams I'd like to like because of their tradition and great fan base but the memory of the sound of those harpies still makes me wince.