TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Don’t ask rookie Florida State head coach Willie Taggart how it feels to be heading into his first Seminoles-Gators rivalry game.
He’ll correct you quickly.
“I’ve always been a part of it,” said Taggart, a native of Bradenton, Fla., who grew up as a Florida State fan in a house full of family members who cheered for Florida. “(My best memories were) the ones we won. I remember all the ones we won. Don’t think about the ones we lost. But it was a lot of great players playing in all those rivalries. I think if there’s anything, a lot of great players and a lot of great coaches throughout all of those games. Again, you can throw out all the records and all the stats, it doesn’t matter that game.
“You got to come ready to play and play for four quarters.”
Both teams plan to do just that Saturday in Tallahassee, because both still have a lot left to play for.
In the case of the No. 13 Gators (8-3 overall), they’re trying to improve their College Football Playoff ranking with one week left in the regular season in hopes of reaching one of the CFP’s major “New Year’s Six” bowls: the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl.
As for Florida State? Well, the Seminoles (5-6) need a win against their rivals just to reach a bowl game — any bowl game.
Florida State has qualified for a bowl every year since 1981 — an NCAA-record streak that spans 36 years — and the Seminoles also haven’t had a losing season since 1975. But Florida coach Dan Mullen would be just fine with seeing both those go down in flames Saturday.
“That’d be great,” Mullen said Monday when asked if he’d like to be the team to end Florida State’s streaks. “I’d love to do it. But that’s what rivalry games are all about, right?”
That they are. But that’s not what Taggart wants to be remembered for in Year 1 of what he hopes is a long tenure in Tallahassee.
“(The bowl streak) is very important,” Taggart said. “We’re a prideful university. We pride ourselves on winning, and you think about the streak, that’s winning. We have been winning every year. So it’s very important that we go out and give our fans, our alumni, our former players and coaches that have been here and our current players and coaches everything we can to see that we get this victory and keep it going.”
The Seminoles are coming off a much-needed victory against Boston College, which dominated Florida State for most of the game but wound up on the wrong side of a 22-21 final score. Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois hit receiver Tammorrion Terry for a 74-yard touchdown pass with under two minutes to play and the Florida State defense stuffed Boston College on its final drive to pull off the upset.
The win by the Seminoles ended a three-game losing streak and kept hope alive for a bowl game.
Florida, meanwhile, wrapped up its second straight victory last Saturday with a 63-10 rout of Idaho. But Saturday likely won’t be as easy; the Gators haven’t beaten the Seminoles in five years and their last win in Tallahassee came in 2012.
And, according to Mullen, visiting Florida’s capital city isn’t exactly a trip the Gators like to take.
Mullen was asked this week about a story that dated back to the days when Urban Meyer was head coach. And the story went like this: Florida coaches didn’t let their players eat out anywhere while they were in Tallahassee — because they were … wait for it … wait for it … worried their players would be poisoned.
“As coaches, we’re paranoid about everything,” Mullen said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “You are. I mean, if you go on the road and somebody like gets sick or something after dinner, you’re like, ‘Oh, they poisoned us.’ As a coach you’re paranoid about everything all the time. But you would hope that would not really happen. College football, man, they’re some passionate people about college football and about their teams. So we’re always cautious about everything going on.”
Well … alrightly then.
Florida leads the all-time series 34-26-2, but the Gators lost their most recent meeting a year ago 38-22, and none of the current players have ever walked away from this rivalry game as winners.
They’re hoping that changes Saturday.
“I’ve just got to get a win against them,” Florida senior tight end C’yontai Lewis said. “They beat me on my official visit and they beat me every year I’ve been here. I’ve just got to get that win.”
So do the Seminoles — to keep the streak alive, to salvage a down season and to keep state bragging rights over the Gators for one more year.
“It’s a rivalry game. It’s the last game of the season. You don’t want to lose the last game of the season,” Francois told Seminoles.com on Tuesday. “I think the fans hate Florida more than they hate Miami. So we’d like to go out with a win any way we can get it.”