Sitting in an Atlanta subway car last December, my senses were overwhelmed with orange and blue.

There was still 10 minutes left in the SEC Championship Game, the final stop before the coronation of one of the best college football team’s ever. But the Gators were finished, and fans had evacuated the Georgia Dome. 

All the preseason expectations, all the big-game experience, all the media infatuation. Squashed — all of it.

There was one Alabama fan in that car, and he told anyone who would listen that the football universe revolved around the Heart of Dixie. The Crimson Tide played harder because, well, people from Alabama love the sport more.

Most Gators fans laughed it off; they had left the game early to avoid this debate. But one middle-aged man took the disrespect to heart, reacting with red-in-the-face anger.

This man was either (a) the type of passionate fan who makes sports go around or (b) insane. Regardless, anyone invested in the Florida program received serious pain at the hands of Alabama last year.

But while the Crimson Tide may have hurt you, the Gators need them. In sports, like in life, you need a contemporary, someone who pushes you to greater heights.

Florida players said their team brought a rock-star mentality to last season’s conference championship. Their 22-game win streak gave the Gators a sense of invincibility. Blood-thirsty autograph-seekers made them late to practice. Road games became a sideshow — “let’s go watch the national champions and Jesus’ favorite quarterback!”

Alabama was Clubber Lang, doing pull-ups in a dungeon. Florida was Rocky Balboa, getting lazy against overmatched opponents.

And for Florida fans, the parade was fun; until it came to a screeching, embarrassing halt. But the loss should not have been shocking.

UF looked sloppy against less-talented teams in Mississippi State and Tennessee, but Florida was not pushed by an opponent last season like it had been by Ole Miss two years ago. And Florida entered the Alabama game averaging 10 less points than it did before the 2008 matchup.

Of course, the Gators coaches had seen the cracks in their team. Watching film, it was impossible not to. But Florida was undefeated, and it’s tough to be self-critical when you haven’t experienced legitimate failure.

That’s not arrogance. That’s human nature.

Urban Meyer has been praised for how he dominates UF’s rivals, Georgia, Tennessee and FSU. His 15-1 record against those teams stirs pride, but that success also creates concern for Florida fans.

Once considered national title contenders, each of Florida’s traditional rivals have fallen off as of late. Not counting games against the Gators, those three teams have a mediocre .639 winning percentage since 2008.

How much credit Meyer deserves for those schools’ collective downfall is debatable. But without the Dawgs, Vols and ’Noles keeping the Gators up at night, Florida could theoretically fall out of fighting shape.

Greatness only comes when you’re pushed. Usain Bolt would not have coasted through those last 10 meters at Beijing if a young Michael Johnson ran next to him, and the ’86 Celtics would not have been one of the greatest basketball teams ever if they had not lost the championship to the Lakers in ’85.

This season, the Gators are playing with a carrot dangling in front of them. Whatever they do this week, four digits will rest in the back of their minds: 32-13.

Campus would have been a much more fun place last winter if Florida had cruised past a bad Alabama team. But the Crimson Tide are great, giving you something to look forward to all year. In the minutes before kickoff, you will be trapped in a glass case of emotion.

And somewhere, a middle-aged Gators fan will be watching, his face red with anger or excitement or joy.