Florida-Texas showdown would be ultimate clash of football cultures
Mark it down: On Jan. 7, 2010, the Florida Gators and Texas Longhorns will meet on a football field for the first time in nearly 70 years.
The teams' anticipated showdown in Pasadena, Calf., will be more than a battle for the BCS National Championship. It will be an epic clash between the two flagship universities from the two biggest football states in the country. It will be Urban vs. Mack, Tebow vs. McCoy, Albert vs. Bevo and jean-shorts vs. Cowboy hats.
"There are a lot of parallels," said Texas coach
The defending national champion Gators got the top nod in
The Longhorns were pretty impressive themselves last season, going 12-1 despite the absence of a marquee running back and presence of a pair of unexpected freshmen starters in the secondary -- a scary proposition in the pass-happy Big 12. Quarterback
For all the parallels, however, a Florida-Texas showdown would be the ultimate clash of contrasting cultures.
Start with the head coaches. On one side there's Brown, 57, who oozes down-home charm and spent the first 20 years of his head-coaching career trying to shake the notion that he couldn't win the "big one." Four years after Brown led the Longhorns to their first national championship in 35 years, the
On the other side there's
Then there are the quarterbacks, whose paths to New York last season could not have started more differently. Tebow was "The Chosen One," a Florida prep legend who merited his own ESPN documentary as a high school senior. When he announced his decision to play for Florida, viewers tuned into the press conference live on television and across the Internet. He's handled the four years of subsequent hysteria with grace and ease, always cracking his trademark smile.
"He's one of the most unique people in the world," said
McCoy has been amazing in his own way. An unheralded prospect out of tiny Tuscola, Texas (population: 714), he arrived in Austin largely unnoticed due to the presence at the time of superstar
"A lot of the recruiting services wondered why we even took him," said Brown. "Now he's going to end up holding every major passing record at the University of Texas."
McCoy and Shipley -- close friends since childhood -- personify Texas' "Friday Night Lights" culture. The state's obsession with football seeps into nearly every Lone Star-raised boy from the earliest possible age, brings together communities and bridges generations throughout the state. Their fathers,
"[Back] home, everyone wants to know what's going on [with the Longhorns]," said Shipley. "That's what makes it fun, feeling like you're playing for everyone where you came from."
Florida's football culture varies greatly depending on which part of the state you inhabit, but two universal traits stand out among the young men who are a part of it: speed and competitiveness. Beginning in the 1980s, the Sunshine State has asserted itself as the nation's most sought-after breeding ground for future standouts. Florida, Florida State and Miami have combined to win 10 national championships over the past 25 years and done so with largely home-grown talent.
"A lot of people wonder why our staff is at Florida," said Meyer. "Five hours from our doorstep are the finest players in America."
Indeed, since 2004, the state of Florida has produced more BCS-conference signees (1,186) than any other state. However, Texas isn't far behind -- it has produced 1,177.
For the most part, high school football in Florida doesn't carry the same pomp and pageantry as Texas. The emphasis lies more heavily with the on-field product. Aspiring teenagers run stadium steps under the blazing sun (or, in the case of swampland towns like Pahoke and Belle Glade, chase rabbits through the mucky sugar-cane fields), all in hopes of becoming the next
At a high school all-star event, you can pick out the Florida kids because "they look like athletes," said Miramar High receiver
Their counterparts at Texas -- where 93 percent of the roster hails from the state -- would surely disagree. Last year, they took exception when, prior to the Longhorns' game against Florida Atlantic, outspoken Owls coach
"The stuff about our offense didn't really bother them, but [the toughness comment], that made them really mad," said Brown. "I said, 'He called you out and it didn't bother you -- but now he's talking about your heritage.'"
There may be no better way to settle this than by letting the two states' reigning college programs duke it out on the sport's biggest stage.
Mind you, this potential collision has been a long time coming. The two schools haven't met since Dec. 7, 1940, when the 'Horns won 26-0 in Gainesville.
By no means will their roads to Pasadena be easy. On paper, Florida's schedule appears to be favorable, but then again, no one expected the Gators to lose to Ole Miss last September. Their most obvious pothole is an Oct. 10 trip to LSU. Each of the past three years, the winner of this game has gone on to claim the BCS title.
Florida avoids both Ole Miss (sixth in SI's preseason poll) and Alabama (No. 8) on its regular-season schedule, but should the Gators reach the SEC title game, they're sure to face a significant challenge from whichever team emerges from the West division.
"Our ultimate goal is to win the SEC championship," said Tebow. "We feel like if we're the champions of the best conference in college football, then we should have the opportunity to play for it all. But, you know, our focus is the SEC."
Texas' red-letter date remains the same as always: the Oct. 17 Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma. The Sooners, which faced Florida last year in Miami, return Heisman winner
But even a 45-35 Red River win last year wasn't enough to propel Texas to the title game, as the Horns fell in a three-way divisional tiebreaker with Oklahoma and Texas Tech. This year's version of the high-octane Red Raiders may be Oklahoma State, No. 7 in SI's preseason poll, whom the 'Horns face in Stillwater on Oct. 31.
Other contenders will undoubtedly emerge. No. 4 USC and No. 10 Ohio State stage another early-season showdown Sept. 12 in Columbus, setting up the winner for a potential shot at the big prize. Similarly, No. 5 Virginia Tech and No. 8 Alabama get their own chance to make a statement with their opening-weekend clash in Atlanta.
But Florida begins on top for a reason. The Gators return more proven talent than any defending champion since USC's 2005 team, and they have a chance to become the first team since Nebraska in the mid-'90s to win three national titles in four years.
"That's one of the reasons I decided to come back my senior year -- to rewrite history," said Spikes. "We've got a good chance. We've got Tebow and [many] starters coming back and a lot of young guys. It's going to be great."
Coincidentally, it was Texas that ultimately squashed that much-ballyhooed '05 USC team, also in the BCS title game, also in Pasadena. Brown sees the parallels between his current team and that team, which itself came off an 11-1 season, returned an iconic quarterback and began the year No. 2 in the polls.
"The 2004 team going into 2005 really embraced the fact we were No. 2 going into the season behind USC, and that status didn't really change until the end," he said. "We have to do as good a job of handling those expectations and not get complacent, or get scared and run from it."
So mark it down, proud Texans and Floridians. Find your flights. Book your hotel rooms. Hollywood is always on the lookout for the next blockbuster; this one's coming to it.