IT TURNS OUT Kathy Belcoff of Keller, Texas, has a mole inside the Florida football program,which is how she came to know that Percy Harvin wouldn't be playing in the SEC championship game before many of his teammates did. At 11:44 a.m. the day before No. 1 Alabama collided with the fourth-ranked Gators in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Belcoff got a text message from her son David Nelson, a reserve wideout who'd caught all of seven passes this season. "I'm getting the start," he exulted.
This is an article from the Dec. 15, 2008 issue
"All your hard work has paid off," his mother texted back. "Your time."
And so it would prove to be for Nelson and Florida in a transcendent title game, a de facto national championship semifinal featuring a pair of uber intense coaches, four lead changes, a cardiac-arresting fourth-quarter comeback and, quite possibly, a Heisman Trophy-clinching performance by a quarterback who already owns one of those stiff-armed statuettes.
Tim Tebow has traveled far and wide during his three years as a Florida quarterback: to Glendale, Ariz., where he accounted for two touchdowns as a freshman in his team's rout of Ohio State in the 2006 BCS title game; to Times Square a year ago, where he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman; to the Philippines, where last spring he worked at a rural orphanage run by his father's ministry.
Yet for all the life experiences he has accrued, the junior from Jacksonville had never led the Gators to a fourth-quarter comeback win—until last Saturday night. And he did it without his most gifted sidekick. With do-it-all speed merchant Harvin on the sideline in sweatpants nursing a bum right ankle, Florida rallied from a 20-17 deficit, dominating the final 15 minutes en route to a 31-20 victory. As has been the case throughout the Gators' nine-game winning streak, Tebow took the point, bulling for a team-high 57 rushing yards while throwing for 216 and three touchdowns. The first and third of those scoring passes were, incidentally, bull's-eyes to receivers who, as Tide coach Nick Saban lamented, weren't open: "We had them covered about as well as you can cover 'em."
While he's had more prodigious statistical days, Tebow has never given more rein to his inner wild man than he did last Saturday. Throughout the game he wore his emotions on his jersey sleeve, screaming (in an uplifting way, mind you) at not just the guys on offense, but at those on defense and special teams, as well. One of the game's more memorable vignettes was of the helmetless Tebow plowing into the Gators' huddled kickoff team late in the fourth quarter, as if he were auditioning to break the wedge. "Just make a play!" he shouted in that huddle. "Let's finish this thing!"
So they did. One big reason Florida is bound for its second BCS title game in three years—the Gators will meet top-ranked Oklahoma in Miami on Jan. 8—is that when number 15 raises his voice, his teammates listen. As Saban himself noticed, "He takes his team on his shoulders."
Another reason the Gators are going to South Florida: In the absence of Harvin, they got serious contributions from all his understudies at wide receiver and running back—B-listers like Nelson, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, Carl Moore and Jeff Demps.
"You don't replace Percy," said Nelson of the player who had scored 16 touchdowns and was averaging 17.0 yards a catch and 8.8 yards a rush. "He's one of a kind.We were just trying to do our jobs."
Each of them did more than that in an epic matchup described by Gators coach Urban Meyer as"one of the best college football games I've ever been a part of." Making it more compelling was the fact that from the outset, this game refused to follow the script. Quick-strike Florida, with 34 plays from scrimmage of 30 yards or longer this season, scored its first touchdown on a methodical nine-play, 59-yard march. Grind-it-out 'Bama answered with a lightning strike that covered 82 yards in two plays.
Alabama's D came into the game ranked in the top five nationally in scoring, rushing, total yardage and pass-efficiency defense. The Tide had been stingiest when it mattered most: Opposing teams had converted just 25% of third downs.
So what happened?Tebow owned third down in the Dome, converting seven of 13 opportunities. All three of his scoring passes came on third down.
As Saban pointed out, the Gators present unique problems on third-and-short because of "their ability to run the ball with the quarterback out of empty." Translation: Even when they line up with no backs, they're lining up with one of the country's best and nastiest short-yardage specialists—the 6'3", 240-pound Tebow. On third-and-four at the Alabama 32 with the score knotted at 10, Tebow jolted a pair of defensive backs backward on a five-yard gain. Five plays later, on third-and-goal from the five, the Gators lined up with three wideouts to the right side. The innermost receiver was Nelson, the transplanted Texan whose college career hadn't panned out the way he had planned.
An All-American at Wichita Falls (Texas) Rider High, he first committed to Notre Dame. After Ty Willingham was fired in late 2004, Nelson decommitted, earning the ire of Regis Philbin, a Fighting Irish alum who called Nelson out on the air, pointing to the camera and admonishing, "Big mistake for you, kid."
Nelson had many occasions over the next few years to wonder if Regis was right. "He didn't expect to get his shot right away," says Belcoff, "but he didn't expect it to take as long as it did." A special teams demon and diligent downfield blocker, Nelson finally started to get meaningful minutes in this, his fourth season. Then came third-and-goal late in the second quarter against Alabama, when he crammed three moves into a seven-yard route, got separation, then got mobbed by teammates after scoring his fourth touchdown of the season.
Just as Nelson cops to drawing motivation from a talk show host, Gator after Gator took umbrage last week at being typecast as the "finesse" team to Alabama's"tough" guys. These guys are plenty tough. They have to be to survive Meyer's notorious "circle of life" drill, an early-August, weed-out-the-weak ordeal in which an offensive and defensive player square off.
When Alabama ran the ball down the Gators' gullet for most of the third quarter, it wasn't because Florida isn't tough. It was because 1) junior Glen Coffee (112 yards on 21 carries) is a terrific between-the-tackles rusher; 2) the Tide's offensive line has five future NFL players; and 3) Florida's defensive front was fairly average—by Gators standards—before it lost Matt Patchan and Brandon Antwine to injuries in the last two regular-season games.
"Yeah, we're a couple guys down," junior middle linebacker Brandon Spikes allowed three days before the game. "And we got a couple other guys nicked up. But we won't miss a beat."
As the spiritual leader of the defense, Spikes has to say that. But the Gators missed quite a few beats on the Tide's two third-quarter drives. The first, a 15-play, 91-yard procession, concluded with freshman Mark Ingram's two-yard touchdown plunge. The next covered 65 yards in 10 plays and led to the field goal that gave the Tide a 20-17 lead.
Fiery and emotional at other times, Tebow was now the picture of concentrated calm as he led what Meyer first described as "the drive of the year," then upgraded to "one of the greatest" in school history. It went 62 yards in 11 plays. On third-and-five at the 'Bama nine, Tebow was "a little shocked," he later admitted, at the call that came in from offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. It was inspired. Tebow had been pitching the ball on the option all night. Showing option again, with the defensive end leaning outside, this time Tebow flipped a shovel pass inside to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who got six yards. Two plays later Demps (53 yards on 14 carries)scored on an option to the left.
Suddenly, mystifyingly, a Florida defense that had looked gassed and ragged slammed the door on Alabama, which gained one yard in the fourth quarter. The Joker stemmed the Tide. Leading 24-20, Florida went with its Joker package—three down linemen, as opposed to the usual four. Sophomore end Carlos Dunlap lined up inside and pinned his ears back on a third-and-eight from the Tide 43. When Dunlap broke to the outside, cat-quick end Jermaine Cunningham, who'd lined up a shade outside him, came slicing off his right buttock, racking up Florida's only sack of John Parker Wilson.
It was the stop that stanched the bleeding—"Exactly what we needed," recounted a drained Charlie Strong, Florida's defensive coordinator. "Our guys dug deep. They played their way out of a bad situation."
Meyer, meanwhile, had his own situation with Murphy, the strong-willed wideout who kept demanding the ball. Early in the game, he'd wisecracked, "Coach, I don't know if you can beat Nick Saban, but I'm gonna beat my man all night." Meyer usually rolls his eyes at such braggadocio from receivers who, he says, "tell us how bad they're beating guys, and you watch the film and they're not."
But something in Murphy's tone persuaded the coaches to call his number. Seeing the senior single-covered up the right sideline, Tebow dropped a perfect, 33-yard pass down the chimney and into the outstretched hands of his fellow captain. Four plays later Tebow shoehorned a five-yard laser into the arms of Cooper for the game's final touchdown.
Afterward Meyer spoke in reverent tones of "a special something" within Tebow—an ineffable, unquantifiable quality that enables him to elevate "everyone around him." With all due respect to the three Big 12 quarterbacks in contention for the Heisman, Meyer added, "My quarterback, I think, is the best in college football. I think he's the best football player in America."
So the debate enters its endgame. Not the BCS debate. That was over by halftime of the Big 12 championship game, in which Oklahoma put the wood to Missouri, 62-21. Compared with the chaos of previous seasons, this year's resolution of the title matchup was relatively tidy, with only one team, Texas, nursing a deep and bona fide grudge.
Much murkier is the answer to the question Heisman electors must ask themselves: Who is the most "outstanding" player in the country? Oklahoma's Sam Bradford has nearly doubled Tebow in passing yards (4,464 to 2,515) and has thrown 48 TD passes, 20 more than his Florida counterpart. Many voters will most likely take into consideration the fact that Tebow put up those numbers against the much tougher defenses of the SEC, just as they will weigh his superior rushing stats: 564 yards and 12 TDs. What this race will boil down to is how much significance the electors attach to that special something: the leadership Tebow exhibited in his tearful mea culpa and vow to work harder after Florida's September loss to Ole Miss; the ability, it seems, to will his team to victory.
If it's all about numbers, Bradford will be the one giving the speech in midtown Manhattan this Saturday. Adding piquancy to this race is the knowledge that 26 days after the trophy is awarded, the loser will get a chance to show voters how wrong they were.
With fireworks detonating overhead and streamers wafting to the turf around him, Tebow was most definitely not in a New York state of mind. "It's a great award, and I love it," he said, "but it's nothing compared to this."