Breaking down Florida-Cincinnati, a bowl set to be played under the strangest set of circumstances in recent memory.
1) Just whose last game is it at Florida? Gators coach Urban Meyer stepped down Saturday, effective after this game, for health reasons. Sunday, Meyer changed his mind and decided to take an indefinite leave of absence and turn over the team to offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. Meyer said his gut feeling is that he will coach the Gators in 2010, but he didn't guarantee it.
Meyer probably will be back, but his players may want to send him out a winner just in case he doesn't return as soon as expected.
It definitely is the last game for Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, who will leave Florida as one of the most decorated players in college football history. Tebow's teammates love him, and they do not want him to finish college on a two-game losing streak.
Several of Florida's juniors also will be playing their last games as Gators, but the exact number won't be known until after the game. With a possible NFL rookie wage scale -- similar to the NBA -- threatened for 2011, top juniors might be more apt to leave after this season. That means this also could be the last game for cornerback Joe Haden, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, tight end Aaron Hernandez and offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey.
2) Cincinnati has had its share of turmoil, too. If you placed a bet a week ago that Cincy would be the more settled team in this game, you probably won enough to buy your own island. Consider what has happened to the Bearcats since they beat Pittsburgh on Dec. 5 to win the Big East title:
1. Coach Brian Kelly took the Notre Dame job. He's taking much of the staff with him, but the assistants stayed behind to coach the Bearcats.
2. Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn was named interim coach.
3. The Bearcats hired Central Michigan's Butch Jones to replace Kelly, but Jones will not take over fully until after the bowl.
4. Quinn was hired last week as Buffalo's head coach, but he elected to stay and coach the Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl.
The Bearcats' displeasure with Kelly's exit was no secret. Receiver Mardy Gilyard was especially vocal, but Gilyard and his teammates have softened their stances as time has passed. Now, they can turn their attention to their chance to go 13-0. Quinn hopes he can lead them there.
"I wasn't going to let anybody down," Quinn said. "I wanted to be here and finish things off. The players can't control the things that happen in this business."
3) In spite of all the distractions, there will still be a game. And an intriguing one at that. Cincinnati is sixth in the nation in total offense (464.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (39.8 points a game), while Florida is fourth in total defense (253.1) and third in scoring defense (11.5).
Cincy quarterback Tony Pike hasn't seen a pass rush as ferocious as the one he'll face Friday, but Florida's defense hasn't seen a passing offense this precise. And if Quinn wants to change things up, he can go to backup quarterback Zach Collaros, an excellent runner who ably replaced Pike for several games after the senior suffered a wrist injury at South Florida on Oct. 15.
The weak link here may be Cincy's defense, which allowed an average of 36.5 points in its last four games. Alabama stymied Tebow and company in the SEC championship, but, with apologies to Lloyd Bentsen, I've seen Alabama's defense, and Bearcats, you're not Alabama's defense. Still, with Gilyard returning kicks and helping Cincy's field position -- and with Florida ace returner Brandon James out -- the Bearcats can survive giving up a few points.
How do you defend Tebow and Florida's option? Who better to ask than Alabama's Nick Saban, the only coach to beat the Gators this season? Before facing Florida in the SEC title game, this is how Saban described the Gators' option attack.
"They have a quarterback who can run the ball. They have some very good running backs who have great speed on the perimeter. And they are reading their plays almost each and every play as to whether they hand the ball off or option the ball, or even create a pitchman sometimes to option the ball. Or even when they run a shuffle pass, sometimes they have the option to pitch the ball. So that in itself is an option.
"And so it is difficult to defend, because it's about numbers. So you really have an offense that at the point of attack can change from out there to out here, to running it in here or throwing it down there. ... And all those things can change in one step, whether it's play action pass or how they create their options.
"And the fact that they have a quarterback who is unique in terms of his ability to run the ball, execute their offense and be a very efficient, effective passer, makes it very important to play very disciplined team defense in terms of everybody keying, being in the right spot and making sure you keep the right side boards on the defense. And they do it out of a lot of different personnel groups and different formations, so that makes it even more difficult for the defense to adjust to each one of those things correctly."
Florida 35, Cincinnati 33. I'm writing this on Monday afternoon. Who knows? By Tuesday, I may change my mind and pick the Bearcats. This game is nearly impossible to predict, because the next bit of drama could swing it the other direction.
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