Tim Tebow was wrong.
Believe it or not, college football’s poster boy actually made a mistake.
During last year’s famous pledge to play harder than anyone else in the country, Tebow actually misspoke. After a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss, he apologized for not producing Florida’s first undefeated season.
Actually, the Gators have had an undefeated season. The 1995 Florida Gators, coached by Steve Spurrier and led by Danny Wuerffel, Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony and Fred Taylor, went 12-0. They dispatched every team on their schedule that year, winning each game by double digits. Then they ran into Nebraska in the national championship game and were rudely introduced to Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips. Nebraska rushed for 524 yards that night, scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter alone. The Cornhuskers won that game 62-24.
Since then, Florida has won three national championships. The Gator team that will grace the field in 2009 returns a potent offense and a starting defense that allowed only 20 first quarter points in all of 2008.
If ever a returning national champion could hold a grudge from the previous season, this would be the team. Florida still stews over the day that Ole Miss bit the Gators on the proverbial tail in the Swamp. These Gators also understand that any chance of returning to the conference championship game, and ultimately the BCS title game, will likely require a flawless season. Other programs like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, USC, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, LSU and Penn State are all chomping at the bit, waiting for the almighty Gators to slip up. If that happens, campuses across the country will celebrate with glee while Gainesville residents will be left wondering what could have been.
That being said, the Gators are poised to repeat, although you won’t hear that from either Urban Meyer or Tim Tebow, who have vowed to take one game at a time. In their quest for perfection, they will have big, orange and blue bulls-eyes on their backs. No opponent can be overlooked.
What follows is a breakdown of the Florida Gators and their search for yet another crystal football.
Quarterback: When Tim Tebow told a packed Florida Field that he was returning for his senior season, fans cheered and opponents winced. What Tebow has done at three years in Gainesville is unprecedented. Two conference championships, two national championships and one Heisman trophy gives him more hardware than your local Sears. And he’s not done. By the end of this season, he may graduate as the most decorated college football player of all time. Backup QB John Brantley will see increased playing time this season if the Gators roll through their schedule with ease. Tebow will also take more snaps under center as opposed to the mostly shotgun format of last year, which should better prepare Tebow for the NFL. Either way, there’s not much left for him to accomplish at Florida, except of course, for another national championship.
Running backs: The Florida roster still boasts football players who run track, rather than track stars who play football. Gone is the most dynamic player in school history, Percy Harvin, who now catches footballs from Brett Favre in Minnesota. Still, the 2009 Gators have more speed than your local pharmacy. Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Brandon James and Emmanuel Moody complete a backfield that will see plenty of touches. The foursome will combine to fill the huge gap left by Harvin’s absence. And there’s always Tim Tebow’s rushing yards.
Receiving corps: Florida also lost senior WR Louis Murphy, but they have plenty of athletes to fill his cleats. Deonte Thompson, David Nelson, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez should account for the bulk of the receptions but Gator fans will also see some young guns emerge. Tebow distributes the ball impartially so even his backfield will get catches. Florida’s passing threat, which can come from anywhere at anytime, will keep defenses guessing. That is what makes them so dangerous.
Offensive Line: You don’t win a national championship without protection and spacing and once again, the Gators are stout on the offensive line. Twin brothers Mike and Maurkice Pouncey were both voted preseason All-SEC. Sophomore Matt Patchan and juniors Carl Johnson and Marcus Gilbert should complete the starting line. Florida has plenty of depth to back them up. Freshman Xavier Nixon, who has received much pre-season praise from the coaching staff, may also see playing time. If the Gators want to repeat, the O-line will be key. It looks like they have that shored up.
Special Teams: As I run down these categories, I keep expecting to find a weakness but it won’t be found on special teams. The diminutive, yet speedy, Brandon James is one of the most electric return men in football. Last year, he consistently gave Florida quality field position, assuming opposing special teams could stop him at all. The Gators blocked five punts last season and will look to continue that trend. Florida also returns the reliability of both punter Chas Henry and kicker Jonathan Phillips.
Defense: Have I mentioned the Gators return all eleven starters on defense? Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes skipped the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. That spells danger for opposing offenses. The Gators are deep at the linebacker position with Dustin Doe, AJ Jones and Ryan Stamper. Furthermore, Jermaine Cunningham is back. Carlos Dunlap is back. Lawrence Marsh is back. So are Ahmad Black and Major Wright at safety and Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins at defensive back. This is a defense that boasted a +22 turnover margin and allowed a lowly 12.9 points per game. In a word… scary.
Coaching Staff: In only four years at Florida, Urban Meyer has made Steve Spurrier an afterthought. Meyer is the fifth youngest head coach in history to earn two national titles. Charlie Strong remains one of the most sought after defensive coordinators in the nation. Former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left to become the head coach at Mississippi State and will be replaced by Steve Addazio. Meyer surrounds himself with the sharpest minds in football and this season is no exception.
Schedule: Aside from their tremendous talent, Florida’s schedule is another reason they were voted pre-season number one. Their schedule lines up nicely for a repeat. The Gators open with Charleston Southern, over whom they’re a 70 point favorite. The following week (Sep 12), they host Troy. That point spread will likely be as high. The following weekend, the Gators begin their conference schedule, welcoming in Lane Kiffin and the Tennessee Volunteers on September 19. With all the trash-talking that emerged from Knoxville this off-season, the Swamp should be packed with rabid Gator fans to rudely welcome Tennessee orange. The following week, Florida travels to Kentucky, who hasn’t beaten Florida in over twenty years. After a bye week, the Gators travel to what may be their toughest test of the regular season: LSU in Baton Rouge on October 10. Afterwards, Florida hosts Arkansas for Homecoming, then travels to Mississippi State before their annual Jacksonville game against a Matthew Stafford-less Georgia team. Then come Vanderbilt, South Carolina, FIU and FSU. If the Gators make it through their schedule unscathed, they’ll play in Atlanta for the SEC Championship. While their schedule appears relatively easy with no Alabama, Auburn or Ole Miss, no team can be overlooked in their pursuit of perfection.
Percy Harvin will be missed. He has more career touchdowns (32) than any wide receiver in Gator history. Not only that, he averaged 9.5 yards per carry as a running back! He will have to be replaced by committee. Louis Murphy, their second leading receiver last year, will also be missed. Other than that, the 2009 Florida Gators look poised to repeat barring an upset. Other than the loss of the multi-talented Harvin, it is difficult to find a weakness on this squad. Florida also has the luxury of not having to play an extremely difficult conference opponent, as opposed to Ohio State who plays both USC and Penn State, or Oklahoma and Texas, who have to play each other.
Florida’s fate is in its own hands. It will be up to the players, the coaching staff and their saint-like, field general to keep their eyes on the prize. An undefeated season will be yet another feather in Tim Tebow’s cap and will solidify his legacy as one of the greatest players in college football history.
The only two college football teams to begin a season ranked number one and run the table for a BCS championship were Florida State in 1999 and USC in 2004. In 2009, Gator fans hope this trend comes every five years. Anything less will be underachieving.