With his Floridateammates rejoicing below him, Chris Leak mounted the stage and acknowledgedthe blue-and-orange-clad mob chanting beyond the south end zone. In short orderhe would accept the trophy presented to the MVP of the BCS Championship Game.The 41--14 thumping of Ohio State had finally made an honest man of Leak, whoas a cocksure high school senior in January 2003 stood before televisioncameras vowing his allegiance to Florida and predicting a kind of Gator GoldenAge of multiple SEC and national championships. Three years later, exactly noneof those titles had come to pass.
Even though Leakhad thrown for 11,000 yards and 87 touchdowns entering Monday night's game, hehad never fully captured the heart of Gator Nation. But then he took the fieldin the biggest game of his life and put on a show that sent a message to anational TV audience at the expense of his Buckeyes counterpart, a dazed andconfused Troy Smith: This is how it's done.
Leak'sperformance--25 for 36 for 213 yards with one touchdown and nointerceptions--was a masterpiece of equitable distribution. He completed passesto six receivers; handed off, pitched or otherwise dispatched the ball to fourrushers; and kept the Buckeyes' defense off-balance all night.
More stunning thanOhio State's failure to stop (or even slow) Florida was the woeful showing bySmith, who completed 4 of 14 passes for 35 yards, with an interception and afumble. He might as well have had his 25-pound Heisman Trophy tucked under hisjersey for all the success he had escaping Gators defensive ends Derrick Harveyand Jarvis Moss, who combined for five sacks.
"Derrick,check this out!" coach Urban Meyer shouted at Harvey, pointing to a statsheet as they exited the postgame press conference. "Eighty-two! They had82 yards of total offense!"
How could thathappen? How could a team that had looked so bulletproof through an unbeatenregular season--ranked No. 1 since season's start and the winner of 19 straightgames--be made to look so pedestrian on the brink of its second national titlein five years?
It wasn't thatcomplicated, Gators senior linebacker Brian Crum explained after the game:"This is a fast-ass team."
Thanks to thedouble-hosting model conceived by the solons of the BCS, Monday night's matchupwas played at the same site--University of Phoenix Stadium--where one weekearlier Boise State had staged its trickeration-intensive upset of Oklahoma inthe Fiesta Bowl. (Apparently those same wise men consulted the Department ofRedundancy Department to come up with the ungainly title: Tostitos BowlChampionship Series National Championship.) Florida's victory confirmed thatthis five-month-old, barrel-cactus-shaped dome in the Phoenix suburb ofGlendale is indeed a friendly place for underdogs and imaginative, risk-takingoffenses.
Riding shotgun ina TBCSNC-supplied SUV on his way to practice last Friday, Meyer tipped his handever so slightly, acknowledging that at least one matchup would not favor hisGators--his offensive line against the Buckeyes' vaunted defensive front four."That's their strength," Meyer said. "Just running right at 'em--Idon't think we can do that."
In truth theprospect of not being able to establish an inside running game wasn't a concernof Florida's second-year coach, who in a career that includes recent stops atBowling Green and Utah never has been big on conventional methods for gainingyards. That his top rusher gained only 630 yards in the regular season and thesecond- and third-leading ground gainers were a pair of true freshmen whodidn't play running back (wideout Percy Harvin and quarterback Tim Tebow) wastestament to the absence of a top-shelf feature back. It also speaks to theresourcefulness and cunning of Meyer, whose objective has always been to getthe ball in the hands of his playmakers--whoever they are and by any meansnecessary.
"We're fairlyfast and deep at receiver," the 42-year-old coach said, "so we're goingto try to get our athletes the ball in space."
How the ball getsto the playmakers has never mattered to Meyer, whose wideouts scored 39touchdowns in '04, his final season at Utah. Those weren't all TD passes fromAlex Smith, either. "We hand it, we flip it, we pitch it, we direct-snapit," said Meyer. And that, it turned out, was only the half of it. AgainstOhio State, Leak--and, at times, Tebow--used the option, misdirection, reversesand an assortment of empty-back formations. It was this multiplicity of methodsthe Gators use to get the ball to their skill guys that Buckeyes defensivecoordinator Jim Heacock listed as his biggest concern four days before thegame.
Added Ohio Statestrong safety Brandon Mitchell, "Their speed does create problems. We'vebeen constantly talking about keeping them inside and in front of us."
Worse, Floridawideout Andre (Bubba) Caldwell promised, "We're going to run them up anddown the field, and see if they can keep up with us. If they try to match upwith us man-to-man, it's going to be a long day for them."
It wasn't longbefore Bubba was proved prophetic. After the Buckeyes landed what turned out tobe their best shot--Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for atouchdown--Leak got busy. Using a dazzling array of four- and five-receiversets, he calmly marched his team down the field on three consecutive touchdowndrives. For good measure Meyer threw in a handful of direct snaps to Harvin andTebow, and four seconds into the second quarter Florida led 21--7. TheBuckeyes' worst nightmare was confirmed: They could not cope with the Gators'speed.
Indeed, Floridaoverwhelmed the Ohio State defense--made it look like the outfit a lot of fanshad feared it would be when it began the season with nine new starters--bysimply putting more playmaking receivers on the field than OSU could defend.According to Florida offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen,the Gators were helped by Ohio State's bullheaded determination to stay in itsbase defense. By not replacing linebackers with extra defensive backs, theBuckeyes were victimized by one mismatch after another.
Who are these fastmen? Meyer described what differentiates each from the others, beginning withDallas Baker (the Touchdown Maker), a senior who on Monday caught his 10th TDpass of the season and whom the coach described as Florida's "best overallreceiver"--the best blocker, best route-runner. The junior Caldwell is ablazer with a knack for beating people deep, but Meyer noted that he's also"very good on the bubble screen," having taken one 66 yards for atouchdown against Florida State.
Senior JemalleCornelius, Meyer said, "is probably our most consistent receiver; he does alot of things very well." Sophomore Cornelius Ingram, a 6'4", 230-poundwide receiver--tight end, is too swift for most linebackers to cover. "He'sgetting better every game," Meyer said of the former quarterback who alsoplayed in 19 games for the 2004--05 Florida basketball team. In the SECtitle-game win over Arkansas last month, Ingram caught a career-high six passesfor 71 yards.
Finally there'sHarvin, a freshman from Virginia Beach of whom Meyer says, "When it's allsaid and done, he'll be one of the greatest to ever play at Florida. That's thekind of talent he has." So blindingly quick is Harvin, so explosive is hisfirst step, that Meyer seems not to mind the issues he has at running back:They give him another excuse to put the ball in Harvin's hands. Says the coach,"I like watching him run away from people"--which is what Harvin didagainst Arkansas, taking an inside handoff and running 67 yards for a touchdownwhen the Gators were clinging to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter.Against Ohio State, Harvin caught a team-high nine passes and ran five timesfor 22 yards and a touchdown.
After he wasassigned jersey number 8, Harvin was reminded by his mother, Linda, that in theBible eight symbolizes resurrection and a new beginning. On Monday the programthat lost 15 games from 2002 through '04 won its second nationalchampionship--a resurrection of sorts.
While the Gatorscouldn't have pulled off this championship season without the contributions ofMeyer's highest-profile recruits, Harvin and Tebow, the accomplishment wastruly more about the players Meyer inherited and transformed in twoseasons.
He brought more toGainesville than an alien offense. (It was widely predicted that the spreadwould fail miserably against the smothering, speed-oriented defenses of theSEC. Funny, Meyer said last week, he doesn't hear that much anymore.) Heinstituted the draconian staples that mark most successful turnarounds: Playerswere told to sit up straight when Meyer addressed them in meetings. Theirconditioning was found to be unacceptable, so, of course, they had to run untilsome of them puked. They were required to learn the fight song and to sing itwith Meyer in front of the school band after each game. By far the most radicalchange was Meyer's insistence that players be more open and honest with eachother and with their coaches.
Assistant coachescalled players to ask where they were. If a player said he was in his room, thecoach would say, "Cool! I'm right outside and I'm coming up." If theplayer's room was a mess, the coach would point this out. "At first it wasweird," says senior center Steve Rissler, who realized after a while thatMeyer was stressing that "the only relationship more important than the oneyou have with your parents is the one with your coach."
Meyer decreed thatThursdays during the season were family days. Spouses, girlfriends, children ofplayers and coaches--all were invited to that day's practice and were welcometo eat dinner with the team, the idea being to strengthen bonds and a player'ssense of accountability. "You want to go out and do something crazy,"Meyer says, "but now it occurs to you that your decisions have an effect on[receivers coach] Billy Gonzales and his family. And by the way, you just atedinner with them yesterday."
The emphasis onfamily "shows us that we're not just playing for ourselves," sayssenior defensive tackle Ray McDonald. "You're playing for your team, you'replaying for the coaches and you're playing for their families. It's prettybig."
Of being forced tospend time with guys on the team whom a player might not otherwise hang outwith, junior linebacker Brandon Siler says, "Of course it wasuncomfortable. But when you got to know everybody, you cared about thosepeople. And when you started caring about those people, you couldn't let thosepeople down."
Chris Leak neverwanted to let anyone down. But his response to success and failure alike hasbeen an inveterate stoicism that at times confounded Meyer, who worked hard todraw the quarterback out of his shell. The scene in Florida's locker room at10:45 on Monday night confirmed his success. Having descended from the stageand endured the postgame press conference, the senior QB was mobbed the momenthe set foot in the room. Coaches, teammates, Meyer--everyone wanted a piece ofhim. And Leak, who lingered in each embrace, wanted a piece of them.
"I can't tellyou how proud I am of him," Meyer said amid the celebration. "I love afighter, and he's a fighter."
Back at his stallat long last, Leak placed his helmet on a shelf. As he did so, a small showerof confetti fell out of the headgear. For a moment it looked like Chris Leak'sprivate party.
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1. USC Ten starters will be back on a defense thatstuffed Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and QB John David Booty could be a Heismancontender.
2. LSU The Tigers will be loaded on both lines. LosingQB JaMarcus Russell to the NFL would hurt, but Matt Flynn is a more thancapable replacement.
3. FLORIDA Urban Meyer's spread-option offense won'tmiss a beat with Tim Tebow taking over for Chris Leak at QB, but the defensemust reload.
4. OHIO STATE With Troy Smith gone, the Buckeyes willlean more on RBs Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells and an experienceddefense.
5. WEST VIRGINIA QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton willbe Heisman candidates, and a defense that brings back eight starters shouldimprove.
6. WISCONSIN Sixteen starters return on a team thatfinished 12--1, though departing All-America tackle Joe Thomas will be sorelymissed.
7. MICHIGAN The offense figures to be loaded with QBChad Henne, RB Mike Hart and WR Mario Manningham, but the defense loses most ofits stars.
8. LOUISVILLE Bobby Petrino's move to the NFL drops theCardinals out of the top four. They'll drop out of the top 10 if QB Brian Brohmleaves too.
9. TEXAS While sophomore QB Colt McCoy gets back all ofhis key receivers, the Longhorns must improve their running game andsecondary.
10. VIRGINIA TECH The Hokies will field anotherdominant defense. But can Frank Beamer get more production out of hisquarterbacks?
UCLA The Bruins, who have 20 of 22 starters back,showed their potential in an upset of USC. SOUTH CAROLINA An offense thatclicked late should be more dangerous in '07. SOUTH FLORIDA Sixteen startersare back on an unheralded team that shut down West Virginia. --S.M.