Assumption No. 1: Florida is accurately rated at No. 5, and the Gators belong in the national title conversation. Therefore, they must be held to a higher standard.
Assumption No. 2: Miami is not the U of Ed Reed and Sean Taylor, nor is it the pitiful outfit that closed the Orange Bowl last season with a shutout loss to Virginia. The young Hurricanes exist somewhere in between.
If Florida truly is a national title contender, the Gators should have grave concerns about the fact that they led 9-3 at the close of the third quarter against a team that features 22 freshmen and sophomores on its two-deep depth chart. They also should worry that they still face the same issues that plagued them during a four-loss 2007. No running back has emerged to relieve the pressure on quarterback Tim Tebow, and the Gators can't find a group of defensive tackles who can stuff the run and pressure the quarterback.
Florida coaches and players should be thrilled that they held the Canes to a field goal and that the offense finally adjusted and scored a pair of late touchdowns, but still, in the back of their minds, they should remember how they felt when they looked at the scoreboard before the fourth quarter began. For offensive tackle Jason Watkins, it was shock.
"I was looking forward to just blowing them out," Watkins said. "I was ready to beat on them."
Instead, Miami coaches threw every manner of blitz at the Gators, and Watkins and his counterparts struggled to cope. The Canes sent the defensive line and one linebacker after Tebow, the defending Heisman Trophy winner. They sent the line and two linebackers. They sent all three linebackers and dropped a pair of linemen into coverage. Miraculously, Miami only managed one sack, but that had less to do with the quality of the rush and more to do with the fact that Florida has a musk-ox at quarterback.
After the win, the musk-ox offered some free advice. Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose unit faces Tebow and company in two weeks, might want to take notes. "When you have a lot of athletes like we do, if you sit back, you're waiting to get picked apart a little bit," Tebow said. "A good way to gameplan us is to come after us."
That's especially true if Tebow has to gain all the tough yards. With all those bodies flying around the line of scrimmage Saturday, the Gators realized a painful truth. Despite an offseason spent trying to develop the running backs, Florida's best ballcarriers remain Tebow and receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin, who missed last week's opener against Hawaii while recovering from offseason heel surgery, scored on 2-yard option pitch early in the fourth after the Canes stuffed a pair of Tebow runs. Tebow led the Gators with 55 rushing yards. Freshmen Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, who averaged 16.8 yards a carry against Hawaii, combined to carry six times for 12 yards against Miami. Which defense, Hawaii's or Miami's, do you think the defenses at Tennessee, LSU and Georgia will most resemble?
Florida's defense should enjoy its near-shutout, but Gators coaches know the young Canes are far more advanced on defense than they are on offense. Miami may need one more year to develop its playmakers. The aforementioned SEC rivals do not. If the Gators hope to win the nation's toughest conference, they'll need help at defensive tackle. Starters Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders did an admirable job Saturday, but they'll run out of gas by October if Florida doesn't develop players to spell them occasionally.
Now for the good news, Gators. It just might be possible that Miami is good. Not wait-one-more-recruiting-class good, but holy-cow-these-young-guys-may-develop-even-faster-than-anybody-thought good. Linebacker Sean Spence, the one Cane to fell Tebow, didn't look like he spent last year at Miami Northwestern High. Redshirt freshman quarterback Robert Marve, who hadn't played a game since December 2006, seemed poised and elusive. Across the field, Florida coach Urban Meyer couldn't help but notice the potential.
"I think they're going to be a good team," Meyer said. "If you're looking for someone to say, 'Boy, they just don't have very good players,' you're out of your mind. You don't understand the game of football. They're young. They're still learning how to play."
And if not for a close call on the right sideline on the final play of the third quarter, they might have entered the fourth with the ball and a chance to take the lead. Facing third-and-9 on the Miami 33, Tebow lofted a pass toward Carl Moore. Moore leaped and grabbed the ball, but Miami safety Randy Phillips met Moore in midair, and Moore appeared to crash over the sideline as the official nearest the play signaled incomplete. But a replay official ruled that Moore's left elbow had come down in bounds. The Gators had first-and-goal at the 5. Harvin scored a few plays later.
Asked about the reversal of the incomplete call, Canes coach Randy Shannon refused to question the call, but he did point out that an SEC official made it. Besides, Shannon probably felt no need to complain. As lopsided as 26-3 might seem, Shannon can look at a score like 24-14 and dream of a bright, not-too-distant future. That tally was the final in mighty Middle Tennessee State's win against ACC colleague Maryland on Saturday. Given the sorry state of the ACC, Miami should feel confident that if it can hold its own in The Swamp for three quarters, it can compete for a conference title. This year.
"We played with a top 5 team in the country, and we had a shot," Shannon said. "That's all you want is a shot when you're on the road in a hostile environment. We've got to capitalize on it next time."
Next time, that shot won't come against No. 5 in the nation with a Florida Field-record crowd of 90,833 wailing away. It might come at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium or Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, where the odds won't be so stacked against the Canes. "We can build off this game," Shannon said.
And they will. "A game like this," Marve said, "just makes me want to work harder."