GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When No. 5 Florida hosts Miami on Saturday night, several dozen athletic young men will sit in the bleachers behind the south end zone as guests of the Florida football program. They all want to examine the Gators, but more than a few will pay close attention to the team on the visitors' sideline.
By inviting so many recruits with Florida and Miami on their watch lists, the Gators are taking a big risk but hoping for a big reward. Welcome to any regional rivalry, where an invitation to a recruit can help a team seal a commitment or hand that player to a rival on a silver platter. On Saturday, Florida will face Miami in the first of a trio of 2008 games -- Florida State-Miami and Florida-Florida State are the other two -- that will shape the Sunshine State's signing classes of 2009 and beyond. This weekend, Florida will enjoy the advantage of a 90,000-plus crowd, a visit from ESPN's College GameDay and NCAA rules that allow only the home team's coaches to interact with official and unofficial visitors. "This will be the showcase of the state," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "The showcase of the country with ESPN coming."
But if the Hurricanes pull the upset or push the heavily-favored Gators to the limit, those recruits, many of whom are also Miami targets, may give more consideration to joining the renaissance at The U that the Miami coaches keep telling them about.
The dynamic isn't limited to Florida. The Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas, Clemson-South Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville games are other prime examples of rivalry games that can swing the recruiting pendulum toward one school. Just don't assume a win guarantees a commitment from a particular prospect. Sometimes, the prospect sees something in the losing team that leads him to believe he can help.
Palnt (Tampa, Fla.) tight end Orson Charles will attend Saturday's game. Florida wants him. So does Miami. Charles still needs to whittle a long list of suitors, and he'll watch how each team uses players at his position to help him analyze whether either school is a fit for him. Whether Florida or Miami wins isn't necessarily the most important factor. "Really, I'm looking for a program that throws the ball to the tight end," Charles said. "For example, if Miami loses but throws the ball more to the tight end than Florida does, then Miami would have the edge. I might be able to help build up that program."
Charles and Columbus (Miami) defensive tackle Antwan Lowery -- whose finalists are Florida, Miami and Rutgers -- are the type of players Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong believes might be moved by this type of game. "In state, you have guys who already know they want to be a Gator or know they want to be a Seminole or know they want to be a Hurricane," said Strong, who with three stints in Gainesville is a 12-year veteran of the recruiting skirmishes between Florida, FSU and Miami. "But that guy who's sitting there on the bubble who really hasn't decided yet, you may be able to sway him."
Miami coach Randy Shannon isn't sure the result of any particular game will mean much on national Signing Day. "Coaches make it more than what it is," Shannon said. "We were 5-7 last year and did a good job in the state. You have to make sure you have good coaches on your staff that can recruit and find the players that fit your program. You have to go out and sell yourself. Parents have to see what the university has to offer, what the coaching staff is trying to get done there. That's most important."
Anecdotal evidence doesn't provide a clear answer, either. Class of 2009 offensive tackle Thomas Ashcraft watched Oklahoma edge Texas in the Cotton Bowl last season, but he committed to Texas four months later. Class of 2008 defensive back Jaron Brown watched Clemson beat South Carolina in Columbia last year, and he signed with the Tigers in February. Among the Florida teams, the most influential game this decade might be Florida's 34-7 win over Florida State in 2005. That day, 14 of Florida's 2006 signees were in attendance. Yet defensive tackle Justin Mincey and offensive tackle Daron Rose were also at that game, and both of them signed with Florida State.
On Saturday, the Gators and Hurricanes won't only try to impress undecided targets. They also hope to convince a few players to change their minds. Escambia (Pensacola, Fla.) running back Trent Richardson, who committed to Alabama in June, plans to visit The Swamp, and Richardson is still getting attention from Florida and Miami. Other committed targets who may attend Saturday are Palmetto (Miami) running back Jaamal Berry (Ohio State), McDonough (Henry County, Ga.) receiver Jamal Patterson (Stanford) and Glades Central (Belle Glade, Fla.) receiver Rantavious Wooten (LSU).
Florida coaches invited all these players and their uncommitted counterparts hoping the atmosphere and the Gators make an impression. Still, they know full well the 'Canes will try to take full advantage of their opportunity to quiet The Swamp and make inroads with some of their own recruiting targets. So watch the action on the field Saturday, but understand that the fight for the futures of the programs will be waged in the hearts and minds of the players sitting in the bleachers behind the south end zone.