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HOW WILL THEY FALL? : The Stakes Never Have Been Bigger for Steve Spurrier’s No. 1 Florida and Bobby Bowden’s No. 2 Florida State, Who Meet Today in a Backyard Battle of Unbeatens That Will Have a Domino Effect on the National Championship and Bowl Picture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing is certain. Today’s “game of the century” won’t turn out like the last one.

Thirty years ago, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State--both unbeaten and untied--played in East Lansing, Mich., to determine the fate of mankind, or so it seemed.

The game ended deadlocked, 10-10, and spawned a new rallying cry: “Tie one for the Gipper.”

Both coaches played it safe.

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With two minutes left, Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty punted on fourth and four at his own 36, with a stiff wind at his back.

With seconds remaining, Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian ran out the clock in his own territory.

Notre Dame went on to win the national championship, and the rest is controversy.

Thankfully, the chance of a repeat in today’s reprisal at Tallahassee, where No. 1 Florida (10-0) meets No. 2 Florida State (10-0), has been legislated out of consideration.

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There will be no 10-10 tie, no lukewarm feelings or unattended business.

Because of the new tiebreaker rule, implemented for just such occasions, there will emerge from Doak Campbell Stadium a winner and a loser in a game of regional import even without the added hype.

“It doesn’t matter if we were ranked the last two teams in the country,” Florida State quarterback Thad Busby said. “It’s already a big game.”

Never been this big.

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This will mark the 31st time that No. 1 has played No. 2, but the first time in 40 meetings Florida and Florida State have met as unbeatens.

What’s at stake?

Nothing much. Pride. Bragging rights. The national championship. For Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, the Heisman Trophy.

The ability to show, or not show, your face in your hometown for a year. Why is it different?

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“So often you play these teams and there’s really no faces behind the helmets,” Wuerffel said this week. “You really don’t know anybody’s name. But you get a chance to play Florida State, and you know a lot of the guys. You play high school with them, interact with them. It just makes it that much more special.

“I think some of the most intense rivalries in my life are playing your dad in some type of game. You love him, respect him, but you want to beat him that much more. That’s kind of the approach I have.”

This is the kind of game they write songs about:

THE STAKES

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For Florida State, it’s simple: Victory vaults the Seminoles to No. 1 with a chance to win the national championship in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 2.

The road is rougher for Florida. The Gators need the win to stay No. 1, but face another considerable obstacle next Saturday when they play Alabama for the Southeastern Conference title. On the line is an automatic berth in a National Football Alliance bowl--Sugar, Orange or Fiesta.

A lot of coaches--those in the Big 12 in particular--abhor having to play a conference title game. Big 12 coaches voted 12-0 against the extra game, but were overruled by their athletic directors.

Though the extra burden potentially works against Florida, Coach Steve Spurrier has always been a title-game advocate, perhaps because the Gators have won four SEC titles since he arrived in 1990.

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THE QUARTERBACKS

Florida’s Wuerffel would appear to have a decided edge, except that injuries have forced the Gators to play three redshirt freshmen on the line in recent weeks. The key loss was center Jeff Mitchell, who broke his ankle in the Georgia game.

“We do the same plays, we don’t change up many things at all,” Wuerffel said of his makeshift line. “So the biggest difference for me sometimes is walking in the huddle on Monday and seeing who we have there.”

Wuerffel’s experience and precision as a passer will be put to the test, although he has met most challenges. He has thrown 105 touchdown passes, 30 this season.

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“Some way, you’ve got to get him out of rhythm,” Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said. “He won’t miss if you don’t. He won’t miss. If we’re unable to harass him at all, they won’t ever punt.”

Florida State’s Busby, conversely, has been a work in progress. The junior began the season so raggedly it appeared he might lose his job to freshman Dan Kendra. But Busby--15 touchdowns, 12 interceptions--has improved steadily and has been solid since midseason. At question this week is a knee sprain he suffered last week against Maryland.

“I feel like I’m going to be ready,” Busby said. “This is one of those games, whether I felt like I was ready or not, I’m going to play. I’m going to do what it takes.”

Busby has leaned on the nation’s No. 1 defense and his star back Warrick Dunn, who returned for his senior season in search of the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. His Heisman campaign never got going, but the national title still beckons.

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THE DEFENSES

Defense? In Florida?

It’s not something the pass-happy state wants spread around, but both schools are in this game because of that in-the-trenches stuff.

Florida State is No. 1 nationally overall and first in rushing defense. The Seminoles have the best front seven in the nation, led by sack-master ends Peter Boulware with 19 sacks, and Reinard Wilson with 12, and middle linebacker Daryl Bush, who leads the team with 96 tackles.

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If Florida State can forge a pass rush without having to blitz, Wuerffel could be in for a long day.

Florida is again an embarrassment of riches on offense, having scored 58 touchdowns while averaging 513 yards a game.

But Spurrier understood after his team’s 62-24 defeat by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl that you have to stop teams too, so he hired Kansas State defensive coordinator Bob Stoops to shore up the defense.

“It wasn’t one of our best games,” Florida safety Lawrence Wright said of Nebraska. “It wasn’t one of our best times out. That, we learned from. It’s something we can’t bring back, but we definitely learned from it. . . . We all felt the loss of that game. We all played poorly. We’re just going to get after it from here on out.”

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Florida ranks 13th nationally in total defense, and leads the SEC in sacks.

“We’ve got some players who can come around the corner also,” Spurrier said. “We’ve been kind of left out of the pass rush conversations this week.”

THE COACHES

You would be hard pressed to find two better. In 21 seasons at Florida State, Bowden has lost 21 games, only nine in the 1990s. He’s a legendary recruiter and has fielded some of the most exciting teams of his era.

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Because he does not wear headsets on the sidelines, he doesn’t always get credit.

“Coach Spurrier, he’s such a good offensive mind, he tends to overshadow people around him,” Florida State receiver Andre Cooper said. “We know what kind of coach Coach Bowden is. We, as a team, feel like he’s the best offensive mind in the country, not Steve Spurrier.”

Folks in Gainesville beg to differ. Spurrier is generally acknowledged as the game’s best offensive coach. He is a hands-on operator, an extension of Wuerffel’s right arm. Spurrier is 71-13-1 in seven seasons in Gainesville and closing in on his fourth consecutive SEC title.

Had Bowden and Spurrier been the coaches in that 1966 game, it might have well ended in a tie: 50-50.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Today’s Game

* No. 1 Florida (10-0) vs. No. 2 Florida State (10-0)

* Site: Tallahassee, Fla.

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* Time: 9 a.m.

* TV: Channel 7

* Radio: XTRA (690)

No. 1 vs. No. 2

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The No. 1 and No. 2-ranked college football teams have met 19 times in the regular season, with the No. 1 team winning 14 of them. A look:

*--*

Date Result Site Oct. 9, 1943 #1 Notre Dame 35, #2 Michigan 12 Ann Arbor Nov. 20, 1943 #1 Notre Dame 14, #2 Iowa Pre-Flight 13 South Bend Dec. 2, 1944 #1 Army 23, #2 Navy 7 Baltimore Nov. 10, 1945 #1 Army 48, #2 Notre Dame 0 New York Dec. 1, 1945 #1 Army 32, #2 Navy 13 Philadelphia Nov. 9, 1946 #1 Army 0, #2 Notre Dame 0 New York Oct. 12, 1963 #2 Texas 28, #1 Oklahoma 7 Dallas Nov. 19, 1966 #1 Notre Dame 10, #2 Mich. St. 10 E. Lansing Sept. 28, 1968 #1 Purdue 37, #2 Notre Dame 22 South Bend Dec. 6, 1969 #1 Texas 15, #2 Arkansas 14 Fayetteville Nov. 27, 1971 #1 Nebraska 35, #2 Oklahoma 31 Norman Sept. 26. 1981 #1 USC 28, #2 Oklahoma 24 Los Angeles Oct. 19, 1985 #1 Iowa 12, #2 Michigan 10 Iowa City Sept. 27, 1986 #2 Miami 28, #1 Oklahoma 16 Miami Nov. 21, 1987 #2 Oklahoma 17, #1 Nebraska 7 Lincoln Nov. 26, 1988 #1 Notre Dame 27, #2 USC 10 Los Angeles Sept. 16, 1989 #1 Notre Dame 24, #2 Michigan 19 Ann Arbor Nov. 16, 1991 #2 Miami 17, #1 Florida St. 16 Tallahassee Nov. 13, 1993 #2 Notre Dame 31, #1 Florida St. 24 South Bend

*--*

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