Cincinnati-Florida: Bearcats Will Have Tim Tebow's Gators Crying in Sugar Bowl

Bryan KellySenior Analyst IDecember 7, 2009

CINCINNATI - NOVEMBER 27:  Brian Kelly the Head Coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats is pictured during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Nippert Stadium on November 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Unlike my earlier assessment , I don't think so little of Cincinnati to declare them David, and I don't think so much of Florida to declare them Goliath.

Whether it was the loss of Percy Harvin to the pros, the loss of OC Dan Mullen to Mississippi State, or the dwindling magic of the "Tebow Child," Florida's offense had regressed so significantly from its 2008 iteration that Alabama's defensive manhandling in the conference championship was foreseeable from at least the middle of the season, when the Gators were struggling to put away lesser outfits from Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Meyer's spread-option rushing attack wasn't producing consistently, and was coming up short against both the superior and the inferior defenses, leading to close games against teams far poorer in terms of talent and scheme. This was something the 2008 Gators only allowed to happen once, in the Ole Miss game, and they still only lost because of a missed extra point.

Still, it seemed like the Gators could lean on their defense in close games. Until recently, that defense led the nation in points and yards allowed, and had returned not only every significant starter, but many of the significant backups from the 2008 national championship squad.

Alabama undid that myth, piling up just shy of 500 yards and 32 points on a Gator defense that was averaging half of that yardage total and a quarter of that point total through 12 games.

There should be no more myths about the 2009 Florida Gators left intact. They are beatable. They are human. Tebow has been stripped of his immortality; he moves among us as a muttering, weeping mortal .

But for the Cincinnati Bearcats to beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl, it will still not be easy.

Not if the incarnation of the Bearcats that showed up at Heinz Field shows up again in New Orleans. You can't expect to throw three interceptions against Florida and still be in the game in the fourth quarter.

The good news is that was an awfully anomalous version of the Cincinnati Bearcats. Until that game, they were second in the Big East in turnover differential. Tony Pike had thrown three interceptions all year prior to tossing three against the Panthers. Their only problem seemed to be fumbling at the goal line .

What's more, Cincinnati was—at least for the first half of the year—behaving like the 2008 Gators, compiling as many points as quickly as possible so as to mitigate the demands on its defense and capitalize on the ill-advised desperation plays of the other team.

That ideology began to erode at around the UConn game, when the Huskies did not go gently into that good night, coming back from a 20-point deficit and keeping pace with Cincinnati possession for possession in the latter part of the game. This forced the hand of the Bearcats on several occasions when it became evident that the shootout was on, culminating in a 4th-and-1 rush that broke free for a touchdown and ended up being the margin of victory.

Cincinnati survived, but ultimately, the rest of its opponents figured out that there was a way to win: Score and keep Cincy's offense off the field.

This should explain the relative closeness of the West Virginia game, and the success Pitt had for most of the Big East championship game. The Panthers leaned on their rushing attack, feeding Dion Lewis for a record-setting amount of carries , and kept the explosive Cincinnati offense off the field for as long as possible.

Giving up so many points forced the Bearcats to play in desperation, which accounts for all of those interceptions. It was only when Pitt made a few errors of its own—two Bill Stull interceptions, including one to kick off the fourth quarter on what otherwise could have been a game-sealing drive—and tried to deviate from the plan that Cincinnati took the opportunity to make a few stops on defense and answer back.

The striking thing about Cincinnati—and what differentiates it from the Gators in a crucial way—is that even when the plan to "score a ton of points and never trail" is no longer working, they've managed to rally and win. That's meant crawling out of a huge hole on the road and nearly benching their starting quarterback after a sideline feud with the head coach, but it's still a resiliency the Gators were unable to muster in their championship game.

"Failure to adapt" is an almost inconceivable charge against a team running an offense that blends concepts from three different schemes and attacks you a bajillion different ways.

But when something has been failing—the infamous "dive play " and the misguided emphasis on Tebow's pocket passing —the Gators have just kind of stuck to it, neglecting to play off the counters and putting a huge strain on their defense. OC Steve Addazio, almost surely fired or demoted by the end of the season, is hugely to blame for this.

They've been finding other ways to win—on field goals and on late, defensive heroics , to name a few—but against Alabama, that failure to evolve quickly enough was what prevented them from keeping pace.

They've embraced the close-game ideology reluctantly and they live by it uncomfortably. This is, in retrospect, an unfortunate result of being so damn good on offense last year, when close games were rare, when defense was practically unnecessary, and when adaptability came at the most crucial hour . This year, close games made the Gators sweat uncontrollably, and their defense was not strong enough to lean on.

Like Alabama, Cincinnati will look to come out aggressively against Florida in even the smallest ways. Recall that Saban won the toss and chose to receive the ball to start the game. He had it in mind from the beginning to apply pressure and count on the Gators' failure to respond, even once.

For Kelly's teams, that's been the M.O. all year. The difference is, even if the plan isn't working, the Bearcats will find other ways to pull off the win, leaving the Florida coaches standing with a blank clipboard.

Cincinnati 34, Florida 28