Jan. 5, 2007
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) - The Florida Gators are feeling unappreciated and they're not happy about it.
There's no doubt the Gators are the underdogs heading into the BCS championship game against top-ranked Ohio State on Monday night.
The unbeaten Buckeyes have been No. 1 all season and rarely challenged, outscoring opponents by 26 points per game. They've got the Heisman Trophy winner in Troy Smith and a coach in Jim Tressel with a national championship on his resume and a reputation for being as good it gets in big games.
The Gators have an imperfect record, several too-close-for-comfort victories and their only All-American is safety Reggie Nelson.
In Las Vegas, Ohio State is a seven-point favorite.
To hear the Florida Gators tell it, the 'O' and 'H' have already been engraved into the championship trophies.
"Every time you pick up a paper or magazine you see Ohio State, then you see one page of Florida or just the title, Florida Gators," Gators defensive tackle Joe Cohen. "And you know, we fought to get here, too. We want a little credit that we're here. At least acknowledge that we're in the game. I guess Jan. 8 we'll show that we're in the game."
Football players are always looking for an opportunity to feel disrespected. It can be a powerful motivational tool. Just ask Texas, which rode Vince Young's need for redemption to a national title last year. Or the 2002 Buckeyes, who pulled off one of the biggest BCS upsets.
And the Gators really have been on the defensive for months, first trying to prove they deserved to play for the national title, then defending their selection for the big game over Michigan.
Thanks to USC, the Michigan problem went away in the Rose Bowl. Still, the Gators know many skeptics remain.
"The way the talk is we don't deserve to be here really," receiver Dallas Baker said. "We played a lot of Top-25 teams and defensive teams and they're still saying that we don't deserve to be here, so this is an opportunity to prove everyone wrong."
Even back home in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., for Christmas, Baker heard the Gators being badmouthed. As he walked around the mall, he overheard a couple of kids predict gloom and doom for the Gators.
"A kid didn't even know I was standing there and I heard him tell another little kid - they were probably like in sixth or seventh grade - they were saying 'I can't wait 'til the game to watch Ohio State beat up on Florida,"' Baker said. "I'm like this is a Florida guy not even giving us an opportunity. He had on a Florida Gator hat but was saying we were going to lose."
Ohio State can relate, at least a little.
The Buckeyes' fifth-year seniors were part of Ohio State's '02 championship team.
Those Buckeyes were unbeaten, but their opponent was a Miami team that had won 34 consecutive games and was looking for its second straight national title.
"Our mind-set was that we wanted to play the best we could. We wanted to shock the world," Ohio State defensive lineman Joel Penton said Thursday. "Miami had some weaknesses."
Not many, but Ohio State exploited them and beat Willis McGahee, Jonathan Vilma, Andre Johnson, Ken Dorsey and the rest of the Hurricanes, 31-24 in double overtime.
Just like the Gators are doing now, the Buckeyes played the no-respect card.
"I remember we got a little flier about a victory party in Miami for when they got back before the game," Penton said. "We did feel slighted. I think it definitely helped."
There's been comparisons made between that Ohio State, Tressel's second, and these Gators under second-year coach Urban Meyer.
"The obvious similarity is that they're in the second year of their building process and that you have a mix of guys that you've just grown to get to know and a mix of guys that you recruited," Tressel said.
Like the current Gators, those Buckeyes were good, not great, offensively. Their approach was very different from the Gators. Ohio State used the power running of freshman Maurice Clarett and some clutch play from quarterback Craig Krenzel to score. Florida's offense has sputtered at times because it lacks an inside running game and appears too reliant on its fast perimeter players such as freshman Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell and Baker.
Both teams played stingy defense and lots of close games. Half of Ohio State's 14 wins were by seven points or fewer. Half of Florida's victories have been by 10 points or fewer.
The Buckeyes have been careful not to feed Florida's us-against-the-world attitude by throwing nothing but praise at the Gators.
"I don't look at ourselves as a huge favorite," Penton said. "We're looking at (the Gators) on film and they're as good as anybody we've faced."
Besides, how much of an underdog can a team playing for a national championship really be.
"People say we are (the underdog) but we really don't feel like that," defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. "The top two teams in the country are playing. Why should there be an underdog? Why shouldn't it be even?"