GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now, Florida goes from playing smash-mouth football to leapfrog. At least that's how Florida TTC defensive tackle Brad Culpepper figures the Gators will get to No. 1.
Fifth-ranked Florida stated its case with an emotionally charged, 14-9 victory yesterday over No. 3 Florida State. The loss eliminates the former No. 1 Seminoles from the national title hunt, but the Gators say they still are alive.
The poll jumping could start today, when Culpepper hopes the voters will move Florida ahead of No. 4 Michigan. His rationale is simple: Both teams are 10-1, and Florida beat Florida State and Michigan didn't.
L "We should be 3," Culpepper said. "We should jump Michigan."
In the Culpepper plan, Michigan then helps Florida win the national title.
"Sure, we've got a shot," Culpepper said. "[No. 1] Miami gets complacent and loses to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, and Michigan beats [No. 2] Washington in the Rose Bowl. Then we beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, and we're No. 1."
If only it were that simple.
Even if the national title scenario doesn't work out, the Gators still are big winners. The win over Florida State capped a season that includes Florida's first undisputed Southeastern Conference title.
Florida had lost four in a row to the Seminoles, and the only thing worse in these parts is snow.
"It's one of the most emotional wins I've ever been a part of," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who was hoarse in victory.
The game, though, didn't go according to form. An expected high-wire, wide-open offensive display looked more like Michigan-Ohio State of the 1970s. Defenses dominated, and the Gators needed theirs the most in the end.
Florida State cut Florida's lead to 14-9 when Amp Lee scored on a 25-yard pass from Casey Weldon with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining. Then, after holding the Gators, the Seminoles got the ball back on their 49-yard line with more than four minutes left after Terrell Buckley's punt return.
Florida State drove to the Florida 14. All the Gators' success on defense was on the verge of not meaning a thing.
"The pressure was so intense," said Florida safety Will White. "We kept saying, 'We're not going to break, we're not going to break.' "
Florida didn't, because White broke up a fourth-down pass on Florida State's last attempt from the 14.
Under pressure, Weldon rolled right and threw toward Kez McCorvey. But White tipped the ball, and then safety Del Speer wiped out Matt Frier, who was waiting for the deflection.
"I saw No. 12 [Frier], and I dove at him," Speer said. "No way was he going to get that ball."
The Gators' defensive front dominated, limiting Florida State to 37 yards rushing. The unit also battered Weldon, leaving him a souvenir of seven stitches to the chin.
"We were blowing them off the line," Culpepper said. "We knew the key would be stopping their running game, because that's why Casey's been so effective. We knew if our defensive line got handled, we were going to lose."
The Gators were uncharacteristically shaky on offense, but they came through with the big play in the third quarter. Rolling out, quarterback Shane Matthews (13 of 30 for 208 yards) found Harrison Houston one-on-one against linebacker Reggie Freeman. Matthews took advantage of the mismatch, hitting Harrison for a 72-yard touchdown to give Florida a 14-3 lead.
Florida State had its chances, but could manage only one field goal for its three drives within the Florida 20. The same problem bothered the Seminoles in their 17-16 loss to Miami.
That the Cotton Bowl-bound Seminoles (10-2) made it close only to fall again heightened what has turned into a heartbreaking season in Tallahassee.
"After Miami, can anything be more painful?" said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. ". . . Other than to lose two of these."
The win wiped away four years of frustration for Florida. With the SEC under its belt, the Gators didn't want this part of the season to end. The players stayed on the field long after the game, letting the fans help them soak in what they've accomplished.
"This was the biggest individual game of my career, because I hadn't beaten these guys," said center Cal Dixon. "If we had lost, something would have been missing from our season. Now, we got it. Now, our season is complete."