The most accomplished running back in college football, Auburn's Bo Jackson, has this thing about playing hurt, some of the Florida Gators were quick to point out last week.
Back in September, Jackson bruised his knee and pulled himself out of a pivotal Southeastern Conference matchup with Tennessee -- a game the Tigers lost, 38-20. And when he did the same last week against Florida, Auburn's second frustrating loss of the season, some of the Gators wondered about the resiliency of this year's leading Heisman Trophy contender, the same fellow who had managed only 48 yards rushing before, Jackson says, a helmet "caught" him between his thigh and knee pads and hastened his retreat to the bench.
Seems, they suggested, Bo Jackson no longer worries about carrying the load for the good people down in Auburn, Ala. Seems, they went on to say, Jackson figures he's already won the award as college football's best player, now that he has the incredible rushing average of 184.2 yards per game, and is looking to protect his big-money body.
Said Alonzo Johnson, a Florida linebacker, "He wants to worry about the money (in the National Football League) and everything."
Everything, in Jackson's case, is no longer the national championship. The Tigers, ranked second in the Associated Press preseason poll, now find themselves at 13th with a 6-2 record, 12 spots below the best team in college football, the Florida Gators, who have dealt with and overcome much pain and sorrow over the last year.
Owners of the nation's longest unbeaten streak (18 games), but stuck with an NCAA probation that prevents them from appearing on live television, playing in bowl games and contending for the SEC title, the Gators (7-0-1) continue to direct therapeutic impulses at their collective ego by inflicting much injury to the egos of their opponents.
But have the Gators chosen the wrong time to do things right? Has victory, however sweet, ever been more futile? And will people ever quit calling them the best team money can buy, or the best team you'll never see, and simply refer to them as the best team in college football?
"What keeps us going is winning," running back Neal Anderson said this week, "whether we go to a bowl game or not."
Florida plays 17th-ranked Georgia (6-1-1) today at 1 p.m. in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, moving the college season over the midyear hump and into the final stretch.
If last year wasn't weird enough, what with Brigham Young clinching the national title Dec. 21 against Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, almost two weeks before the New Year's Day bowls, you may know the national champion the night of Nov. 30, which is when the Gators play their final game of the season, against Florida State.
Although the United Press International coaches' poll prohibits the inclusion in the rankings of any team that has been placed on NCAA probation for rules violations, Florida still may hold the top spot in the Associated Press media poll, which ranked the Gators No. 1 this week for the first time in the school's history.
If Florida does continue to win, what will become of poor Penn State, which is undefeated after eight games and frustrated at No. 2? And what of Air Force, this year's surprise contender at 9-0 and the fifth-ranked team in the country?
You can count on both the Falcons and the Nittany Lions to compare their records with the Gators'. And this is the question you'll hear: how on earth did big, bad Florida tie lowly Rutgers, which now stoops at 1-6-1 and was a loser to Tennessee last week by 40 points?
This is where the Gators expect your kind indulgence and good heart. Against the Scarlet Knights, Florida led by 21 points in the third quarter.
It was time, Gators Coach Galen Hall figured, to pull his star quarterback, Kerwin Bell, and replace him with the second-teamer. Hall did this, you hear, because he hoped not to further embarrass his old Penn State pal and teammate, Rutgers Coach Dick Anderson. But what Hall did was embarrass himself and his team, as the Scarlet Knights rallied behind a number of Florida miscues to tie the score.
Said Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, "(Florida) has the possibility of winning the national championship . . . and they still want to stick their tongue out at the conference and say, 'Who cares?' about not being able to claim the SEC crown . . . They are very angry, and anger is a great motivator."
The last time a team strapped with probation won a national championship was in 1974, when the Oklahoma Sooners did it with Hall serving as Barry Switzer's offensive coordinator. This year, the Sooners opened the season as the nation's top-ranked team but dropped several spots after losing to the Miami Hurricanes.
Iowa suffered a similar fate after holding the top spot for several weeks, then losing a tough one to Ohio State last week in the driving rain at Columbus. The Hawkeyes dropped to No. 6, and Coach Hayden Fry fussed and fussed.
In defense of Chuck Long, the Iowa quarterback who threw four interceptions and may have bounced out of the Heisman picture, Fry blamed the crowd noise, claiming Long became "mentally disturbed for the first time since he's been a starter for us because of his inability to communicate."
Who will win the national championship, and will it be determined more than a month before the end of the season, and by a team found guilty of 59 NCAA violations? And who will take home the Heisman Trophy?
Will it be Purdue's Jim Everett, Navy's Napoleon McCallum, Temple's Paul Palmer, BYU's Robbie Bosco or Auburn's Bo Jackson, whom the Gators claim "doesn't want to play because he doesn't want to get hurt?" Or will it be Chuck Long, who failed to perform well under a storm of Buckeye voices?
The season begins all over again every Saturday. And it ends then, too.