MIAMI To most football fans in Florida, theres no doubt about whos No. 1: their state.
As a football hotbed, the Sunshine State may be unsurpassed. The year begins with Florida at the center of the football universe, providing a badly needed boost to the states image, tarnished by news events in 2000.
Florida State bids for a national championship tomorrow night against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, the last of five bowl games in the state. The Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes square off for the first time since 1987 at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans tonight. And the Miami Dolphins are among eight teams still in contention for the Super Bowl, which will be played in Tampa on Jan. 28.
The schedule is an embarrassment of riches, even by the standards of football-centric Florida.
"Football is the only thing Florida can get right," said Jeff DeForrest, a sports broadcaster in Miami.
It might seem that way in the wake of last years Elian Gonzalez custody dispute and a presidential election that earned the state the nickname "Flori-duh."
"The state was an absolute fiasco," Hurricanes defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "People were making fun of us right and left. Hopefully this will change all that and make them forget."
Football and Floridas climate can make scorn turn to envy. While much of the Mainland shivered yesterday, nationally televised bowl games in Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville were played in cool but sunny weather.
That sends the kind of message tourism officials love. They also love the economic impact of Floridas bowl games and the Super Bowl, estimated at $500 million.
Football has long been big business and a big deal in Florida. The Orange Bowl began in 1935. The Dolphins became the states first pro team in 1966, while the first NBA, NHL and baseball franchises came more than two decades later. And perennial college powerhouses Miami, Florida State and Florida have combined to win seven national championships since 1983.
"If the national championship is played and there is not a team from Florida in it, I dont think its a true national championship game," Florida State linebacker Brian Allen said.
California and Texas, with much larger population bases, rank ahead of Florida in homegrown talent at the NFL and collegiate levels. But Florida reigns when it comes to bowl games, and the states pro teams arent bad either.
The Jacksonville Jaguars failed to make the playoffs this season but reached the AFC championship game a year ago. Tampa Bay was eliminated from the playoffs Sunday but played in the NFC title game last year. The Dolphins, who have made the playoffs each of the last four seasons, beat Indianapolis in overtime last week and play Saturday at Oakland.
Third-ranked Florida State, bidding for a second successive national championship, would be unbeaten and No. 1 if not for a loss to Miami. The second-ranked Hurricanes have a shot at their fifth national title if they beat the Gators.
Florida football excellence starts in high school, where spring practice uncommon elsewhere and year-round warm weather help coaches hone youngsters drawn to the sport by tradition.
"Spring ball is where you learn the fundamentals," said Florida State cornerback Tay Cody, a Georgia native. "Coaches are eager to get out in that sunshine and teach. Its very beneficial, and you can see it in the type of players they put out in Florida."
The abundance of talent attracts recruiters from most major-college programs, and more than a dozen Floridians dotted the rosters of such schools as Louisville, West Virginia, Syracuse and Houston this season.
"There are so many players from the state," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "Half of them are going to get out of the state."
Those who sign with the Seminoles, Gators or Hurricanes become part of intrastate rivalries that can be fierce, as last weeks French Quarter fracas between players from Florida and Miami showed.
But in a diverse state that became the butt of jokes last year because it was so sharply divided, the obsession over football is something Floridians from Pensacola to Key West share with pride.
And to many fans, the controversies of the recent past were overblown anyway.
"Down here," broadcaster DeForrest said, "most people thought Elian Gonzalez was an offensive lineman."
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