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Gators face weight of expectations in SEC title matchup with Alabama

The rankings say it's No. 1 vs. No. 2. Technically, the stakes Saturday are exactly the same for both Florida and Alabama -- an SEC championship and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

But make no mistake: the pressure meter tilts heavily toward one sideline. For Alabama, a victory will be treasured, a loss disappointing. But for Florida, a loss Saturday will render its entire 2009 season a failure.

From the moment Tim Tebow stood on the stage at the Gators' victory celebration last January and uttered the words, "Oh, by the way, let's do it again. I'm coming back," the expectation level for this year's Florida team elevated to the highest possible degree.

Florida's 2006 and 2008 national title teams spent most of their seasons flying under the radar, sneaking back into the picture at the very end. This year's Gators, however, have been everyone's prohibitive favorite since the start of winter conditioning.

"[This season] is completely different," said Florida coach Urban Meyer. "The expectation level, it felt like it was on you the entire year. The players felt it and the coaches felt it."

With a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, a trio of explosive tailbacks and the entire two-deep from last year's national-title defense all returning, the '09 Gators were expected by both fans and media to not only win, but win big. While the former happened, the latter didn't always. As a result, what would otherwise seem like a dreamy 12-0 regular season morphed at times into a drama-filled soap opera.

The scrutiny began with Florida's Sept. 19 game against Tennessee, a matchup that took on extraordinary interest when first-year Vols coach Lane Kiffin falsely accused Meyer of cheating in pursuit of a recruit last February. For months, the message boards and airwaves percolated with speculation as to just how many points the Gators would pile on in revenge.

When Florida posted a more modest 23-13 victory, criticism flushed over the defending champs.

"We beat a very good SEC team early in the year and [the reaction] was 'What happened? You guys didn't play very well,'" said Meyer. "As opposed to 'let's just find a way to win that game.'"

A week later at Kentucky, Florida's offense looked more like its 2008 version, as the Gators soared to a 31-0 first-quarter lead. But then, in the third quarter, Wildcats defensive end Taylor Wyndham laid a vicious sack on Tebow that sent the quarterback out with a concussion. Over the ensuing two weeks (which included a bye), Tebow's health became a daily, national storyline as the lead-in to Florida's showdown with then fourth-ranked LSU.

Tebow played, and Florida won, 13-3. Most followers overlooked the Gators' latest low-scoring output with the assumption Meyer was trying to protect Tebow. But when Florida required a last-second field goal (and a pair of highly controversial officiating mistakes) the following week to stave off Arkansas, 23-20, Gators fans went into full-on panic mode. AP pollsters dropped the Gators to No. 2, albeit just for a week. Florida was winning, but not the way many had envisioned.

"It's been a lot of ups and downs with us because people are expecting more on some games," said Tebow. "You've got to score more, got to be more flashy and make more big plays. Sometimes it's not just who we are."

Tebow's low point came on Oct. 24 at Mississippi State, when the senior star threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in a 29-19 win. Tebow uncharacteristically declined to speak with media afterward, and Meyer acknowledged his quarterback was "frustrated."

All ensuing scrutiny over Tebow and the Gators' then-wobbly offense soon fell by the wayside, however, when, during Florida's 41-17 rout of rival Georgia the following week, cameras caught star linebacker Brandon Spikes attempting to eye-gouge Dawgs running back Washaun Ealey. Once again, Florida became a national storyline for reasons besides victory, especially when Meyer initially opted to suspend the All-America for just the first half of the next game.

The past month has gone far more quietly for the Gators, who clinched their division on Oct. 31. Public attention finally shifted from replay reviews and eye-gouges to the impending showdown with Alabama. Tebow and the offense seemed to find their groove starting with the Georgia game, and Florida rolled through five largely uneventful wins to end the regular season. Following an emotional Senior Day rout of Florida State, the Gators finally reached their first season-defining game.

"Our goal was very simple -- to get to Atlanta," said Meyer. "We had a team meeting [Sunday] and realized that with playing in the SEC Championship comes an enormous amount of obligation and responsibility."

Unfortunately, defensive end Carlos Dunlap didn't get that memo. At 3:25 a.m. Tuesday, Gainesville police found Florida's star pass-rusher asleep at the wheel of his red 2000 Chrysler. He was arrested for DUI and subsequently suspended for Saturday's game. While the ultra-deep Gators have survived attrition before -- they played last year's Alabama game without injured star receiver Percy Harvin -- Dunlap's arrest becomes the latest episode in a season-long string of off-the-field drama.

"We've had distraction after distraction," said Meyer. "This is a rather serious one, obviously, so it is a distraction. Sometimes this team's found ways to get a little tighter in distractions. We've had a few of them this year.''

It's tough to say what effect Dunlap's absence might have on Saturday's game. By all accounts, the Gators and Crimson Tide are as evenly matched as they come.

Alabama's defense has allowed 10 more yards than Florida's all season. Both rank in the top three nationally. Neither allows more than 10.8 points per game. Offensively the Gators, led by Tebow and explosive tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, rank sixth nationally in rushing offense (236.7 yard per game); the Tide, with their powerful backfield tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, rank 13th (212.9). Tebow (66.4 percent completions, 8.9 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns, four interceptions) has been a more efficient passer than Alabama counterpart Greg McElroy (60.8 percent, 7.5 yards per attempt, 16 TDs, four INTs), but the Tide (14 sacks allowed) have done a better job protecting their quarterback than the Gators (28).

The fact that Florida is considered a 5-6 point favorite speaks to the level of respect it has achieved through the course of its 21-game winning streak -- which includes a 31-20 victory over another undefeated Alabama team in this same game a year ago. In that contest, Tebow led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to win.

On the one hand, this year's circumstances feel almost identical to last year's, when Alabama entered the game ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings, with Florida No. 4 but widely favored. With two Big 12 teams standing between them, there was little doubt that game, like this year's, would serve as a de facto national semifinal.

But Florida's '08 season was completely different from this one. The Gators, coming off a 9-4 rebuilding year, weren't even favored by many to win their own division (Georgia started No. 1 in the country), and spent much of the year playing catch-up following an early-season loss to Ole Miss. In '06, when Tebow was a freshman situational player, Florida didn't become a BCS contender until UCLA upset USC the same day as the SEC title game.

"In '06, we were just rebounding. I thought we had a good football team but we had a lot of issues on offense. And there certainly weren't expectations like we had this year," said Meyer. "Then following the 2007 season, we played very poorly in a bowl game and our defense was not very good. And we had a lot of sophomores turned juniors. So the expectation level maybe from some areas were there. But not like it was this year."

This year's expectations have been building for nearly 12 months, and even after 12 victories, they'll be rendered moot if Florida doesn't take care of business on Saturday. Win, and the Gators advance to Pasadena, possibly for a long-anticipated showdown with 12-0 Texas. Lose, and the final game of the Tebow era could be a Sugar Bowl consolation date with a team like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Boise State.

Few Florida fans could stomach that outcome.

"[Meyer] tried to keep us away from [thinking] if you lose a game, then was the season a failure. He didn't want that to be the case," said cornerback Joe Haden. "Now, we're all sitting here undefeated. SEC Championship, we win this, we go on to the national championship.

"So basically, this is the game."

And the season.

And the legacy.

No pressure.

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