Senior Writer

Living in the moment: Gators-Tide has no rival in sports


Let's redefine the term rivalry. Let's say the "rules" don't apply.

You don't have to meet 18 times a year. In fact, eliminate baseball from the discussion altogether. Even the Red Sox and Yankees have to get sick of seeing each other.

The rivalry can't be sponsored, not by a company, or a bank, or a network. It just has to be. Organic. Real. Played out in the stands, not the board room. "Dr. Pepper presents ..." is not a proper rivalry.

There has to be a recent history, no dog-eared stories involving Babe Ruth, Bobby Riggs or Wilt Chamberlain.

There has to be something at stake. Something besides a wild-card berth or home-field advantage. The Dodgers and Giants can play all they want. Mix in a championship now and then.

Oh, and Don Criqui cannot be involved. Ever. Just a personal preference.

Let's call a rivalry what it is supposed to be -- significant, bitter and compelling. And in the moment. That's where this argument will jump off the tracks for some of you. Florida-Alabama is not only is the best rivalry in college football, it's the best rivalry in sports.

Right now.

In a society where you're only as good as your next tweet, that's all that counts -- what have you won for me lately? As hateful at Alabama-Auburn has been it's hard to find an Iron Bowl in recent years where both teams have been ranked. Miami doesn't play Florida again until 2013. I'll take your arguments about Tennessee-Georgia, Michigan-Ohio State and UCLA-Southern California. I'll also ask what happened to Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan and UCLA. Recently.

John Brantley replaces a UF legend and goes head-to-head with Greg McElroy, unbeaten since middle school. (US Presswire)  
John Brantley replaces a UF legend and goes head-to-head with Greg McElroy, unbeaten since middle school. (US Presswire)  
Recently, the winner of Florida-Alabama has won the past two national championships -- the Gators in 2008, the Tide in 2009, both after first beating the other in the SEC title game.

Recently, the game has featured perhaps the most compelling figure in the sport's history. You might have heard of him. His name rhymes with Jim Zebow.

Recently, the game has featured a pair of Heisman winners -- that Mr. Zebow and Alabama's Mark Ingram.

Game of the weekend? It's not even close. You can have Stanford-Oregon and Texas-Oklahoma. I'll take Florida and Alabama against the field to still be standing the first week of December.

If you have to ask about the atmosphere Saturday at Bryant-Denny then you don't have sensory organs or a sense for what the matchup means.

There isn't a game to be played Saturday, or all season for that matter, with two bigger rock-star coaches. The combined salaries of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban could get them office space in Dubai. Maybe, but that's not the point. Their combined national championships (two each) might assure them space in the College Football Hall of Fame long before their careers are over. Saban is getting a statue near Bryant-Denny. Meyer is getting well after an offseason of turmoil. Saban starred in his own movie. Meyer stared at his own mortality.

And they keep on winning. They used to call it the SEC. Now they call it the Gator/Tide Invitational.

Saban still kicks himself for blowing a chance to form a dynamic Wonder Twins partnership. As a young coach, Meyer called about a job after Saban had become coach at Toledo in 1990.

"I really kind of messed that one up," Saban admitted this week. "He called my house and talked to [wife] Terry. Terry really interviewed him. She told me when I came home that night, 'This really interesting guy called, sounded like a top-notch [guy], articulate.' She said, 'You really need to talk this guy.' That was obviously one of the biggest mistakes I ever made."

The Dolphins will argue, but that's another story. It has been a long, wonderful trip from NFL dalliance to college dominance. The build-up is clear for, if not exactly the game of the century, the rivalry of the moment. Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa will settle, for now, who is the alpha dog in the SEC and, as history suggests, in the country. No. 1 Alabama hasn't lost a regular-season game since 2007. No. 7 Florida has lost once. That brings up the unlikely significance of Mississippi and Utah in this game. Aside from Florida and Alabama beating each other, those are the only two teams to defeat the Gators (Ole Miss) and 'Bama (Utes) at all in the past 33 months.

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How's that for recently?

Sometimes absence makes the heart grow more bitter. Florida and Alabama haven't met in the regular season since 2006. Because they play in different divisions, the rivals are scheduled to meet only four times every 10 years. The SEC championship game, then, has been the only place to reflect their ascension recently to arguably the two best programs in the country.

The best thing about Saturday is that it could be a prelude. Each can afford to lose the game and still meet again for a third consecutive year in December's SEC title game. Playoff honks pay attention. The past two meetings have been de facto national semifinals for the BCS championship game.

The last meeting, 10 months ago, brought Tim Tebow (his real name) to tears after Florida's loss. Make fun if you want. There aren't many rivalries outside the Little League World Series where the loser cries.

"This is revenge," Florida safety Ahmad Black said.

Which is what Alabama got in December for Florida's 31-20 '08 win in Atlanta.

Meyer, of course, says it's not about revenge. It's about hope. Florida didn't look like it had much going into this game until freshman Trey Burton went for six touchdowns against Kentucky. Suddenly there was something to build on from an uncertain September. Burton is probably the least likely member of the 2010 recruiting class to pull off such a thing. Against Kentucky, he played quarterback, fullback, tight end and receiver.

That made him a throwback. To last year. Florida hopes to redefine a rivalry with Burton, who plays like Tebow, only without the tears.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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