By Stewart Mandel
August 11, 2009

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 Mack Brown. "Texas and Florida are very, very similar, with the passion and the interest and the number of [college] players and importance of high school football in the state. Both teams have outstanding quarterbacks that were both in New York [for the Heisman Trophy ceremony] last year. It would be fantastic."

The defending national champion Gators got the top nod in Sports Illustrated's preseason poll (Texas ranks No. 2) for obvious reasons. They are the rarest of commodities in the modern era, a team that managed to return all 11 starters (and nearly all of its top backups) from a top-10 defense. Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Ahmad Black, Joe Haden -- they're all back for another run. There's also a certain Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on the other side of the ball. Tim Tebow accounted for 3,419 total yards, 42 touchdowns and just four interceptions last season.GALLERY: Check out SI's regional preview covers

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 Colt McCoy, fresh off setting the NCAA record for completion percentage (77.6), returns for his fourth season as a starter, joined by his roommate and favorite receiver Jordan Shipley, four veteran offensive linemen and an experienced defense (led by star DE Sergio Kindle) that allowed just 14.5 points per game over the last four contests of '08.

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 Austin American-Statesman suggested Brown could win the state's recently vacated Senate seat if he so desired.

On the other side there's Urban Meyer, 45, the embodiment of today's new-age, hypercompetitive coach, a guy who once worked his Blackberry so relentlessly the NCAA banned text-messages to recruits. In less than a decade, he's skyrocketed from unknown Notre Dame receivers coach to the hottest head coach in the country, compiling an 83-17 record, capturing two BCS titles and accomplishing what once seemed unthinkable in Gainesville: upstaging Steve Spurrier.

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 Dan Mullen, Tebow's offensive coordinator the past three years and now the head coach at Mississippi State. "He taught me a very valuable lesson in life: If you can make an impact on someone's life, it's your obligation to do that. And he is one of the most amazing young people out there."

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 Vince Young and the impending arrival of all-everything recruit Jevan Snead. Baby-faced and soft-spoken as a freshman, McCoy stunned 'Horns fans by tying an NCAA freshman record for touchdowns. Since then, he's bulked up and become a more vocal leader, but remains more comfortable with a hunting rifle than in front of a pack of cameras and microphones.

"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, Brad McCoy and Bob Shipley, were college teammates at Abilene Christian, and both went on to become high school coaches in the state. Their sons grew up around the game, witnesses to a weekly fall spectacle where entire towns close down shop and pour into the nearest stadium. They dreamed of reaching the state's football Mecca, Austin.

"[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 Ray Lewis, Fred Taylor or Santonio Holmes.

At a high school all-star event, you can pick out the Florida kids because "they look like athletes," said Miramar High receiver Ivan McCartney. "They look like they belong in the pros. We're quicker, we're stronger. We're more dedicated than any other state."

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 Howard Schnellenberger first mocked their "dinky" passing game, then said that while Texas' players were talented, they weren't "physically tough" like his band of Floridians.

"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 Sam Bradford and a bevy of other stars, including tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Travis Lewis. The 'Horns get a slight edge over No. 3 Oklahoma, however, due to the Sooners' inexperienced offensive line and receiving corps.

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.

-- Andy Staples contributed to this story

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