HE PULLED thegrass-stained jersey over his head, wincing as he did so, then removed an icebag from his tender right shoulder. Before Tim Tebow hit the showers, roughlyan hour after leading Florida to its second BCS national championship in threeyears, the Gators quarterback remembered to peel the black stickers with whitelettering from under his eyes. ¬∂ Maybe that's why he threw two interceptions, abystander suggested—because he changed the Bible verse printed on the eyeblack. After plugging Philippians 4:13 on his ruggedly handsome mug for many ofFlorida's games this season, Tebow called a scriptural audible before takingthe field against Oklahoma last Thursday night, opting to go with John3:16.
This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2009 issue
Smiling, he didnot deign to address that possibility. Pressing the stickers to the base of theplaque he'd just been awarded as the game's offensive MVP—Tebow passed for 231yards and ran for another 109 in Florida's 24--14 win over the Sooners—he said,"Think we could put these on eBay?" He wasn't serious.
Nor was theshoulder injury he aggravated during the 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive thatgave Florida a 14--7 lead in the third quarter and might as well have beencalled The Tim Tebow Show. The linebacker-sized, 21-year-old junior, who onMonday underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from the shoulder, kept the ballon six of those snaps, bucking and bulling through Oklahoma defenders for 48yards, moving the chains, pumping his fists and otherwise channeling WilliamWallace. While it was dramatic and entertaining, the performance was not out ofthe ordinary. In each of Florida's biggest wins this season—LSU, Georgia, atFlorida State, plus the SEC title game triumph over Alabama—there was a pointwhen Tebow had to pick up the team and carry it on his broad back.
The differencelast Thursday in Dolphin Stadium was that Tebow's lousy first half was theprimary reason the Gators needed a lift in the second. The Sooners' defensecame out showing him new alignments and more pressure than they had brought allseason, intercepting Tebow twice in the game's first 23 minutes. "I was alittle irritated with myself," said Tebow, who had only two picks in the 13games before the BCS final. "The coverages they showed me—I should've readthem better. But the key thing is to not let it faze you. We kept fighting, andthe team kept believing."
AS TOUGH asnumber 15 was, Tebow didn't have to dig as deep as Percy Harvin, the juniormultipurpose threat who slashed his way to 171 all-purpose yards and atouchdown despite playing with a hairline fracture in his right ankle. On thefirst play from scrimmage after Oklahoma had tied the score at 14 early in thefourth quarter, Harvin ripped off a 52-yard run to the Sooners' 26-yard line,then dashed another 12 yards on the next play. That set up Jonathan Phillips's27-yard field goal, giving Florida a lead it would never relinquish, andcertified that there was much more to the Gators' offense, much more to the SECchampions, than their 2007 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback.
After all, itwasn't Tebow's assignment to slow the most prolific college offense of the lastcentury. Gators haters will find no joy in the fact that eight underclassmenstarted on the defense that humbled Oklahoma's point-a-minute juggernaut. Usinga sort of rope-a-dope strategy, Florida at times yielded big chunks of yardagebetween the 20s but then stood its ground near the goal line, holding 2008Heisman winner Sam Bradford and the Sooners 40 points below their seasonaverage.
The Gators wereyoungest in the secondary, with sophomores at strong safety (Ahmad Black), freesafety (Major Wright) and one cornerback spot (Joe Haden); lockdown cornerJanoris Jenkins, the latest in a proud line of stars from Pahokee (Fla.) High,is a freshman. It was Wright who sent Oklahoma a message on the game's thirdplay, closing like a bullet train to level wideout Manuel Johnson, who had noprayer of hanging on to the ball and, come to think of it, was barely a factorthe rest of the night.
Bradford wouldcome back to Johnson on the penultimate play of the first half. The pass nevergot there, but it did have an interesting journey. The game was tied at seven,and the Sooners were desperate to score after having failed to convert afourth-and-goal from Florida's one-yard line on their previous possession. Thistime, on first-and-goal at the six with 10 seconds left, Bradford's pass toJohnson was deflected by Haden, batted upward by Black (who dug the ball offthe turf like a libero in volleyball) and into the hands of linebacker RyanStamper, who was relieved of the ball by Wright for the interception.
That's where theSooners lost the national championship: On consecutive drives inside theseven-yard line they did not score a point.
But Florida stillneeded what coach Urban Meyer called the biggest play of the game from theteam's smallest defender, the 5'9" Black. With the Sooners driving for ago-ahead touchdown with about 10 minutes to play, wideout Juaquin Iglesiasflashed open on a skinny post. Bradford's throw hit him in stride and in thehands. Arriving a nanosecond later was Black, whose struggles at cornerbacklast season led many to write him off as a recruiting mistake. Transplanted tosafety over the summer, he emerged as the team's sharpest ball hawk, pullingdown six interceptions. His seventh was a stunner: He wrested the ball fromIglesias at the Gators' 24 in one of most dramatic reversals of fortune in the11-year history of the BCS.
Ten snaps laterFlorida had the ball four yards from Oklahoma's end zone, poised to add to its17--14 lead. Just before he jogged onto the field for the next play, juniorwide receiver David Nelson caught the eye of Meyer, who made a perfectlyreasonable request: "Go win the game for us." The call was Trey Left,341 Stop Bend X Fake, better known to Gator Nation as the jump pass. With hislinemen selling the run, Tebow took two steps forward out of the shotgun, thenjumped straight up, uncorking at the apex of his leap a pass that barely eludedthe hands of a lunging Sooners linebacker—keep your chin up, Keenan Clayton,that was damned good coverage—and came to rest in those of Nelson for thetouchdown. Raising his eyes to the game clock, Nelson saw that only 3:07remained, he recalled later, "and I knew it was over."
But emotionsstill ran high. Oklahoma went four-and-out on its next possession, and Tebowcame back on the field to run out the clock. After banging 13 yards for a firstdown, he caught some trash talk from safety Nic Harris. Rather than respond inkind, or turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), Tebow mockingly gave Harris theGator Chomp, bringing his extended arms together like the jaws of an alligator.That earned college football's best-known choirboy what he believes was thefirst unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty of his life.
Deadpanned Meyerat the postgame press conference, "He's running at 6 a.m.tomorrow."
If there werenervous titters among the general laughter, it was because of the speculationthat Tebow might declare for the NFL draft. He scotched those rumors at theteam's celebration in Gainesville on Sunday, telling a delirious crowd of40,000, "Oh, yeah, and by the way, one more thing: I'm coming back nextyear. Let's do it again."
AT THE end ofeach season, because of the flaws in the BCS system, there is uncertainty andcontention over which school is truly No. 1. Even after Florida was votednational champion in the AP and coaches' polls, boosters for undefeated Utahand once-beaten USC and Texas argued that their teams were more deserving. Buton one issue there is absolute clarity: Meyer is the best coach in collegefootball.
The 44-year-oldnative of Ashtabula, Ohio, was the original BCS-buster, taking undefeated Utahto the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and putting the wood to Pittsburgh. He has won twonational championships at Florida, and he has dominated his Sunshine Staterivals, winning all five games against Florida State and Miami in his fourseasons.
Responding toquestions last week about how his team could possibly stop Oklahoma's hurry-upoffense, Meyer calmly stated his belief that schemes don't win football games,players win football games. Recruiting is the lifeblood of his program, and hegenuinely enjoys calling on prospects at their homes. The reward: The Gatorsrepeatedly beat out the Seminoles and the Hurricanes for the state's toptalent.
When recruitsvisit Gainesville, they are escorted through Florida's recently completed,21,000-square-foot strength complex, a cutting-edge facility with a 55-yardtrack. "This is where it all begins," says Meyer. Sprints are capturedon video, then replayed on the flat-screen TVs hanging overhead. After Harvinruns a 40, for example, he can watch the tape and break down his mechanics withthe coaches, including Florida track coach Mike Holloway. Adds Meyer, "Ouroff-season [training] is based on speed. We teach speed."
Another piece ofequipment that's important to his team: the cold tub. Leading up to Florida'sgame against LSU on Oct. 11, Meyer was worried. "We'd just beaten Arkansasbut played very poorly," he says. "LSU was our first real big one, andour guys were incredibly uptight." Following that Friday's walk-through,Meyer was strolling past the training room when he saw several players soakingin the cold tub. "I thought, The hell with it," he recalls. "I tookmy phone out, made sure I didn't have anything else in my pockets and jumpedin." Minus his shoes, he was otherwise fully clothed.
The following daythe Gators trampled the Tigers 51--21. Left tackle Phil Trautwein, asuperstitious type, insisted that for the rest of the season Meyer take theplunge following every walk-through. And last week in Miami, following theWednesday walk-through, there was the coach shivering through his weekly ritualin a crowded tank. When asked if he'd learned to enjoy it yet, Meyer responded,"Are you kidding? It's like knives going through your body."
The followingnight, the Gators extended their winning streak to 10 games. And let's face it:Whether Harvin and marquee junior linebacker Brandon Spikes go pro, these guyswill be favored to win it all again next season. That's the cold reality forthe rest of college football.
Keep an eye on:Oregon, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Penn State, Oregon State
Stewart Mandel's 2009 TOP 10
Not only is Tim Tebow coming back, but so is most of a defense that startedeight underclassmen in the championship game.
Led by QB Colt McCoy and one of his favorite targets at wide receiver (JordanShipley), the offense brings back a wealth of talent.
If quarterback Mark Sanchez returns, the Trojans will have 10 starters backfrom the offense that lit up Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Travis Lewis lead an experienceddefense that figures to be the Sooners' strength.
A program that was a big surprise in '08 will be even more talented across theboard as Nick Saban begins his third season.
6. OLE MISS
One of the hottest teams down the stretch could have its best season since the1960s if the defense continues to develop.
7. OKLAHOMA STATE
The offense, led by QB Zac Robinson, should be dynamic again, though thedefensive front seven needs to improve.
The Utes suffer big losses at the skill positions, but with nine starters backon defense, they shouldn't be overlooked. Just ask Alabama.
Consider the five-loss season an aberration, especially now that the Tigershave a QB they can trust in rising sophomore Jordan Jefferson.
10. VIRGINIA TECH
A solid QB (Tyrod Taylor), a budding tailback (Darren Evans) and anotherdominant defense bodes well for next season.
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