Don't write off the Gators
Click here for five reasons why Ohio State will win
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Florida doesn't have a chance.
That has been the prevailing wisdom in the days leading up to the BCS National Championship Game. The Troy Smith-is-invincible crowd is awaiting the logical coronation on his Heisman season. Las Vegas sportsbooks have listed the Gators as at least a touchdown underdog since the first lines were posted on Dec. 3. Scores of journalists at media day asked questions hinting that Florida's only advantage over Ohio State is its "superior SEC speed" -- almost suggesting that, if Smith were to get hurt early, the game stayed tied 0-0 after three overtimes, and the refs opted to put the pigskin aside and crown the champ by a series of head-to-head 40-yard-dashes, only then would the Gators have any hope of pulling out a victory.
The vox populi is so overwhelmingly in favor of the undefeated, top-ranked Buckeyes at this point that I have to side with the one-loss, SEC champions instead. I know that Smith is no Heisman fraud, Vegas is listening to the money, and Ohio State does hold myriad advantages. But what about the History of the Written-Off in BCS title games? Oklahoma was supposedly going to be helpless against Florida State's top-ranked offense in the 2001 Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes, now a favored juggernaut, were viewed as fodder for the Miami machine in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. And Texas, even with Vince Young, was regarded as merely the last hurdle in the crowning of USC's dynasty at the 2006 Rose Bowl. What happened in each of those cases? Upsets.
The Gators are the latest to be Written Off, and here are five reasons why they'll win:
1. Nothing can wreak more havoc than a nasty defensive line ... And Ohio State hasn't faced anything like Florida's rotating quintet of Jarvis Moss, Derrick Harvey, Steven Harris (on the ends) Joe Cohen and Ray McDonald (in the middle), which has managed to be dominant despite the November loss of tackle Marcus Thomas (whom Cohen called the "best D-lineman in college football" before he was kicked off the team). The Buckeyes are aware of this, too: Said OSU senior offensive lineman Doug Datish, "[The Gators' front four] are the most athletic guys we've seen all year. They play with a lot of power and athleticism, which is a different combination than we've seen."
For historical evidence, hark back to the 2004 Sugar Bowl, when LSU's speedy, D-line -- with Chad Lavalais plowing up the middle and Marcus Spears rushing off the end, as well as intercepting a pass for a touchdown -- smothered Oklahoma Heisman-winning QB Jason White into a 102-yard, two-interception embarrassment. Ohio State will only be vulnerable if Smith feels serious heat in the pocket and is contained from scrambling. Florida is uniquely equipped to do both.
Scout-team quarterback Mike Guilford (who's known as "Sunshine" for his resemblance to Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass from Remember The Titans) has been playing the role of Smith in the Gators' title-game preparations. Of the quickness of the first-string D-line he has to face in practice, Guilford said, "By the time you look downfield, they're on you, especially Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss off the ends. It's ridiculous."
2. The Harvin Factor. When the potential impact of Florida's prime playmaker, freshman Percy Harvin, enters the discussion, the common argument against him is, Talented wide receivers have not fazed Ohio State. The best Big Ten wideout that the Buckeyes kept out of the end zone this year, Michigan's Mario Manningham, is a classic, NFL-sized target -- and nothing like Harvin, a versatile burner who can line up at split end on one play, and on the next run a draw 67 yards for a touchdown (like he did against Arkansas in the SEC title game). The only remotely similar player in the Big Ten is Penn State's Derrick Williams, but the Nittany Lions are far less creative in getting him the ball than Florida is with Harvin.
"When Percy gets to the edge and into the secondary, it's pretty much a done deal," said fellow wideout Jemalle Cornelius. "Any way we can get the ball in his hands, and get him in the open field, increases our chances of winning."
The seemingly endless layoff between each team's final game and Monday night likely means offenses will be rusty early in Glendale. Ohio State, which hasn't played in 51 days, relies heavily precision passing and could be more affected; whereas the Gators, if they can spread the field and simply get the ball to Harvin in space, could break big plays early.
3. "The Eraser" will be inspired. Florida's Reggie Nelson, the best free safety in the nation, is still coping with the Dec. 21 death of his mother, Mary Lakes, from breast cancer. Lakes, who was diagnosed in October 2003, used to speak with her son via phone before every game, and fill up his voice mail box with messages after big plays. No one in the press has been able to speak with Nelson in Arizona -- he was understandably excused from last Friday's media day -- so we have to trust his close friends, like cornerback Ryan Smith when they say Nelson is fighting through it, and will be fine.
"He's the most impressive safety that I've seen on film," OSU wideout Anthony Gonzalez said of Nelson. "He plays in the middle of the field and can intercept the ball on the sideline."
There is speculation that the Gators' insistence on playing man-to-man coverage against Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr. could be their undoing, but Nelson's help makes it no ordinary man D. "When I make a mistake, [Nelson] can erase it -- that's why they call him the Eraser," said Ryan Smith. "The hits that he puts on receivers ... make them play a little scared."
4. The Block Patrol will change momentum. When Florida has its team meals, the special teams players eat first -- for good reason. Coach Urban Meyer ran special teams as a Notre Dame assistant in the late '80s and early '90s, and said last week that the x-factor of Monday's game could very well be whether his team makes a big play on a punt, field goal or extra point. The Gators already set a school record this season with eight blocks. Two were on field goals, including the 6-foot-6 Moss' stuff of South Carolina's Michael Succop on a potential game-winner on Nov. 11. Five were on punts, including Jarred Fayson's block against Arkansas that set up an early touchdown in the SEC title game.
Athletes like Fayson, who was the nation's No. 3 overall receiver prospect in 2006, make the Gators' punt-block unit dangerous. With such speed, he said, "we just find holes in the punt teams."
5. Trickery will be the difference. Does anyone really believe Boise State will be the only team to bring trick plays this bowl season? Florida is capable of breaking the game open early -- and putting the Buckeyes on their heels -- with some vintage Meyer surprises. The coach said he slept through that epic game, but on the plane ride out to Arizona the next morning, he reportedly killed time with offensive coordinator Dan Mullen by drawing up trick plays. Mullen said that he actually has to be "the checks and balances guy" for Meyer to make sure they don't go overboard with the offensive wrinkles.
Junior wideout Andre Caldwell said some of the Gators players, himself included, went to Meyer after the Boise State game and "begged" to throw some Bronco-style trickery into the game plan. Cornelius, meanwhile, said "you can bet on" there being some interesting material in Florida's Monday-night playbook.
"You expect that kind of stuff in championship games," Cornelius said, "so you might as well let it all hang out."
Prediction: Under pressure from the Florida pass rush, Troy Smith starts slow, and the Gators jump out early on a Harvin touchdown. Florida makes its big move after half, using a Tim Tebow fake-option pass and a well-timed Caldwell reverse to tack on two more scores. Smith rallies the Buckeyes back within three, but Nelson picks him off on the final drive to seal the stunner.
Florida 24, Ohio State 21.