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Gator Bowl: Ohio State, Florida try to avoid rare losing season

January 1, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Ohio State and Florida have been two of college football's most consistent programs in recent years.

Conference championships, big-time bowl games, national titles, the Buckeyes and Gators have experienced it all.

This year proved much different for two of the country's power programs.

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New coaches, personnel issues and losing streaks left Ohio State and Florida with their worst seasons in decades and landed them in the Gator Bowl.

One of the two will end up with another low: a losing season.

The Buckeyes (6-6) and Gators (6-6) will try to avoid carrying that baggage into the offseason by winning Monday's game. It's the most significant storyline in the matchup that has been hyped as Urban Meyer's former team vs. his future team.

"It's disappointing obviously," first-year Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "It's not something we want to have happen. I certainly know that these players and our staff don't want to be saddled with that. Is that a motivating factor? Certainly should be."

Ohio State hasn't endured a losing season since 1988, when the Buckeyes finished 4-6-1 under first-year coach John Cooper. Florida hasn't finished below .500 since 1979, when the Gators went 0-10-1 in Charley Pell's first season.

"It's two programs that aren't used to being in this spot," Buckeyes center Mike Brewster said. "It's really just for pride at this point."

Ohio State and Florida have played once before - in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series national title game in Glendale, Ariz. Meyer's Gators won 41-14, making the coach the most popular person in Gainesville.

He's not nearly as beloved these days.

Meyer left Florida after the 2010 season, and spent most of the year working as an ESPN analyst before taking the head coaching job at Ohio State. He stayed away from the Gator Bowl and his former and future teams this week, instead concentrating on his first recruiting class.

Meyer will officially take over next week, tasked with leading the Buckeyes through NCAA probation.

The NCAA hit Ohio State with a one-year bowl ban and additional penalties last month for violations stemming from players who exchanged jerseys, rings and other Buckeyes memorabilia for cash and tattoos. The violations cost coach Jim Tressel his job, and the Buckeyes turned things over to interim coach Luke Fickell.

"It was a growing process for all of us," said Fickell, one of several assistants who will remain at OSU under Meyer. "We've talked about it; we've said it a million times: change is inevitable; growth is optional."

Fickell seemed to have Ohio State on track after consecutive wins against Illinois and Wisconsin in October. But the Buckeyes dropped their last three games against Purdue, Penn State and Michigan.

Braxton Miller was a bright spot in the losing streak. The freshman quarterback had 248 yards rushing and 450 yards passing in the three tight games.

"The Braxton I have under center now opposed to the Braxton I had at the beginning of the season is night and day," Brewster said. "He's grown so much and he's so much more confident now. He's really just a different player. With bowl practice, I'm anxious to see how much more he's grown and how things go.

"He just has a much better grasp on the big picture. He's come such a long ways this season, and I think that's pretty impressive."

The Gators have shown little improvement under Muschamp.

The offense sputtered under coordinator Charlie Weis, who left last month to take the head coaching job at Kansas, and the defense was pushed around by the Southeastern Conference's top teams. Put those together and Florida lost six of its last eight games and needed to rally to beat lower-division Furman.

The Gators finished below .500 in SEC play for the first time since 1986, and following the regular-season finale against Florida State, Muschamp called his team physically and mentally soft.

"I think we've made some strides, but we've got to build our numbers back on both lines of scrimmage," Muschamp said. "That's what's going to help us the most."

Throw out a 453-yard, 54-point performance against Furman, and Florida has averaged 244 yards and 13 points in its last seven games. Senior quarterback John Brantley has been banged up, running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps have been mostly bottled up, and the Gators have found few consistent playmakers at receiver.

The result has them facing a losing season - just like the Buckeyes.

''No team or coach is going to focus on the negative," Fickell said. "They're only going to talk about the positive. That's where our thoughts are. That's not in neither one of our thought process."