The Greatest Conference In Football Belongs To One Team
Florida's Defining Moment
The University of Florida's Quarterback, Tim Tebow, stood every inch of his 6'3" frame on September 27th, 2008, over the podium set in front of him. Tim Tebow had went 24-38 for 319 yards, 1 TD and carried the ball 15 times for only 7 yards and 2 scores.
A performance normally very Tebow-esque, as he accounted for 326 total yards and 3 touchdowns in the game, but the end result was not as planned.
The scoreboard at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium read: "Ole Miss - 31, Florida - 30"
Despite leading at the half by 10, the Gators played undisciplined football all day, playing right into the hands of their counterpart, the Ole Miss Rebels.
Although the Gators out gained Mississippi by 118 yards, they put the ball on the ground a total of 3 times, all recovered by Ole Miss.
Receivers dropped passes, Tim Tebow overthrew intended targets, playcall was questionable throughout, and the Florida offensive line allowed 3 sacks and a constant rush from the relentless Mississippi front seven.
A determined Rebel team quite simply outplayed, outcoached and flat out beat the fourth ranked Florida Gators on their home field in wake of Southern California's loss at Oregon State.
Gathering his thoughts, Tebow took a few deep breathes, clinched the podium and absorbed defeat. What came next, though, has brought an unbelievable swagger to this Florida team on their way to a 12-1 campaign.
Tim Tebow looked into the eyes of a media member, and apologized for his play. The rest of his press conference was just words, the following is the story of the 2007-2008 Florida Gators football team:
"I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this" Tebow stated, "You have never seen any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the entire team as hard as I will push everyone the rest of the season, and you'll never see a team play harder than we will the rest of this season". Without pausing, Tebow looked down towards his feet disgracefully, and finished "God Bless".
With each word that came from Tebow's lips, you could almost feel a completely different football team. Words so riveting and inspirational couldn't lie to the Gator Nation, and couldn't fool the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
The Florida Gators were on a mission, a mission to destroy anything and everything thrown their way, and they did just that. Since the Ole Miss loss, Florida has outscored opponents 445-117, and have out gained the opposition by 1,647 net yards. (Florida has 4,314 net yards since the Ole Miss game, their opponents have 2,667 net yards since the Ole Miss Game)
With performances such as this, one may question whether Florida's opppositon were pushovers. Well, statistics disagree with that logic. Of the 8 games played after the Ole Miss dibacle (The Citadel was not included due to no stats provided), 7 were against teams that are currently ranked in the Top 50 in total defense. (Alabama included, Arkansas was the only team not in the Top 50 overall)
Having put all of this into perspective, it's been an excellent season for this Florida team. Florida is in the top ten in both scoring offense and scoring defense. (3rd in scoring offense, 5th in scoring defense)
To make things simple and straight to the point, Tim Tebow lived up to the promise made following the upset, which has transformed this Florida football team into something special.
But the question wasn't whether or not the Gators had an outstanding football season following the loss to Ole Miss, but rather the question being could Florida upset number one ranked Alabama and become Southeastern Conference Champion?
Story Of The Season
Nick Saban inherited a Alabama program two seasons ago that was up in arms, a traditionally excellent and passionate football state torn to shambles, especially with Alabama's recent struggles and Auburn's struggle.
The Tigers are 34-16 since 2004, while Alabama is 35-16. Auburn has put together a 0.68 winning percentage in this span, while Alabama pieced together a percentage point better.
However, what has offered more concern in Tuscaloosa and for Alabama fans around the country was the Tide's miserable 1-7 record against their arch-rivals, Auburn, since the 2000 season.
That concern was addressed later on in the season with a shutout, Iron Bowl Victory for the Crimson Tide, as they rolled on to a 36-0 triumph.
Although that was a peak to a magic season, that wasn't the point of emphasis on how good this team actually was. Since opening night for the Tide, they've rolled to an improbable season, one that wasn't expected from not only Alabama fans, but the SEC in general.
The season opened with a 34-10 upset win in the Georgia Dome over 9th ranked Clemson. The 24th Crimson Tide didn't surrender anything, and that's a serious statement. A tandem of running backs with quick feet, great field awareness and most importantly pure speed didn't intimidate the better prepared Crimson Tide in the least bit.
In fact, it didn't scare Alabama at all. Clemson might not be what they were projected now, but at the time they certainly had high expectations. Not only did Alabama win this game, they didn't allow a single rushing yard to two of the ACC's best running backs in James Davis and CJ Spiller, and that set the tone for a fine season for the Tide.
Marching through anyone and everyone, the Crimson Tide rolled through the SEC's western division and finished the regular season undefeated. Standing in Alabama's way of a 13-0 season and a National Championship appearance was the Florida Gators, an opponent that Alabama had not seen before.
It is also important to note how big of an impact Saban's freshman recruits have had on this Alabama team. Some freshman who have received significant playing time, or are starters for the team, have had huge impacts on this entire football team as a whole. Those being second string running back Mark Ingram, highly touted wide receiver Julio Jones, and linebacker Donta Hightower.
Mark Ingram has 12 rushing touchdowns on the season, and has played a great role in Saban's pound it out, physical style offense. Julio Jones also caught 55 passes for 4 touchdowns on the season. Donta Hightower has also been a starter, like Jones, and has stepped up as an immediate leader on the defensive side of the ball, behind senior Rashad Johnson and junior Terrance Cody.
Alabama has 71 of 108 players on the football team that are freshman and sophomores. That makes up about 65 percent of Alabama's football team, and there's only just comparison as of late to that... and that's the 2007 Florida Gators.
The 2007 Gators, which finished the season 9-4, had a mass influx of productivity on the offensive and defensive side of the ball from true freshman (particularly defensive lineman and defensive backs) and sophomores. The 2007 Gators were made up mostly of recruits from 2006 and 2007, although some roles were filled by upperclassman. (For instance, safety, with Tony Joiner)
Re-visiting the Georgia Dome, the Crimson Tide looked to follow the same principles outlined in their upset over Clemson, stop the rushing game. The Crimson Tide brought a top 5 rushing defense and the best third down defense to the table in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Southeastern Conference Championship.
Adding to the jubilation and high expectations was the fact that dynamic Florida play maker Percy Harvin was sidelined with an injury. Harvin, who had 16 touchdowns on the season, was projected to give an Alabama defense fits, a defense that many speculated would struggle against a spread offense like Florida's.
The Showdown in Hotlanta
The 17th Southeastern Conference Championship game was the first ever match-up in a conference championship that put a first-ranked team in the Associated Press Poll against the second-ranked team in the Associated Press Poll.
The two teams had met up 5 times coming into this match-up, with Florida holding a 3-2 overall lead. The last meeting between the two in the SEC Championship resulted in a 34-7 Alabama victory.
Coming into the game, Florida also boasted a 6-2 overall record in the SEC Championship Game, and Alabama had a 2-3 overall record.
It's safe to say that the contest did not disappoint. There was a lot of questions asked about Florida's offense, whether or not it would struggle without the presence of Percy Harvin in the starting lineup.
It seemed as though the question had been answered on the first Florida drive, where Florida moved the ball 61 yards on Alabama's stiff, physical defense to score first. Of the 61 yards the Gators moved to score, 35 were on the ground. The Gators went straight at Alabama's strong point, and succeeded early.
Alabama knew they needed to answer, otherwise Florida could end the game and end the game fast. So how did the Tide counter? Well, it was simple. John Parker Wilson found freshman Julio Jones for a 64 yard gain, then Glen Coffee pounded it out on the ground for a 18 yard touchdown run.
Something of relevant note is that at this point it appeared the two had switched identities. Alabama was supposed to be the long drive, physical, wear the opposition down type team while Florida was supposed to take the mold of the quick striking, high paced, catch you off-balance team.
In fact, Alabama is 12th in the nation in time of possession, and Florida is 73rd. Yet we were three possessions into this game overall, and Alabama had score a touchdown in 1:27, while Florida scored in 4:28.
After Alabama scored, Florida looked sluggish. They played Alabama's game this whole contest, but at this point they were getting manhandled by the Tide's immense amount of strength. We're talking about an excellent Florida offense going 3 plays and out consecutively, a feat that hasn't been accomplished against the Gators much this season, if at all.
Even though Florida continued to struggle offensively, Alabama couldn't score either. Through the two drives that Florida went three and out consecutively, Alabama only was able to produce a field goal. On the fourth Alabama drive of the game, the Crimson Tide decided to run a fake field goal, but Florida's special teams prevailed and stopped it in it's tracks.
A wake up call for the Gators, as from that point on it was nothing but senseless Alabama errors, and an easy victory for the Gators. Although Alabama did end up taking a 20-17 lead, and made even myself as a Gator fan nervous, it was almost obvious that Florida was in control and ready to attack.
Florida was able to get a field goal and tie the game after the failed fake field goal by Alabama, and a significant play occurred following the kickoff by Florida.
Caleb Sturgis, Florida's kickoff specialist, has been a gambler all season long. He's had a couple miscues where he's kicked the football out of bounds, resulting in the opposition taking over on their own 40 yard line.
However, in some rare occurrences, like this one, Sturgis' mind games have paid off for the Florida Gators.
Kicking to Alabama return wizard Javier Arenas is never a fun thing, but kicking around him is always a choice to consider. However, Florida went right at Arenas. Kicking slightly towards the out of bounds line, Sturgis put Arenas into an awkward position.
Instead of fielding the football with his foot on the out of bounds line, or just letting the ball go out of bounds, Arenas caught the football, then proceeded to go out of bounds.
So, what could have been a start at their own 40 cut Alabama back to their own 4. It was 3 plays and out for Alabama, and all of a sudden the Gators had some momentum and confidence, and that is probably the worst advantage you can give the Gators.
Following the 3 and out, Florida used speed as a weapon. Brandon James ran to the outside, forcing a tackle by way of the face mask - an automatic 15 yard penalty. James could not have been caught from behind, therefore Alabama decided to take him down by the face mask, giving Florida an automatic first down and 15 free yards.
A costly mistake resulted in a Florida score, the final score before the half. Urban Meyer preached the basics that Gator Nation has heard all season once more to CBS Sideline Reporter Tracy Wolfson, as Meyer told Wolfson that Florida would look to bring "30 minutes of high energy football" to the table in the 2nd half.
And Meyer didn't make a fool of himself. With a 17-10 lead, Alabama dominated Florida in the 3rd quarter, scoring 10 points and jumping ahead to a 20-17 advantage over the Gators. It looked as though Nick Saban's Crimson Tide had put on cruise control and were headed for Miami.
But in the words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast my friend". There were 15 more minutes of a game to play, and Florida wasn't going to come so far and lose this football game, especially with the way they've won their games up to this one.
What came in the fourth and final quarter was the story of Gator football all season long, sheer determination and the mindset to never quit and never put themselves out of a game - no matter how much the odds were stacked up against them.
In wake of a Leigh Tiffin field goal, Brandon James ended the third quarter with a 38 yard kick return, putting the Gators in position to tie or take the lead. In a drive ever so similar to that of the first one, which got the Gators their first score of the game, Florida ended with the same result - a touchdown.
With a 24-20 lead, Alabama was now trapped inside a cell, and the walls were closing in on them. They must have been claustrophobic, because all they put out was 3 plays and punt.
Florida then did the reverse of their last drive, moving the ball down the field and putting more points on the scoreboard. With a 31-20 lead and little time remaining, it was clear that the Gators were SEC Champs for the 3rd time since 2000.
If there was ever a Heisman defining moment for Florida QB Tim Tebow, it occurred on the final drive of the game. Tebow led the Gators down the field, mainly through the air on a 34 yard strike that fell right into the hands of senior wide receiver Louis Murphy, and then found Riley Cooper on a slant for a 5 yard touchdown.
Why was it so significant? The Gators had been penalized the play before on a sideline infraction. It was 3rd down and Florida was 5 yards out, and a field goal would have meant that Alabama could tie the game with a touchdown and point after touchdown. However, Tebow stepped up and delivered a strike to Cooper, and closed out the game.
Joe Haden then intercepeted John Parker Wilson, ending all hopes of a miracle. The confetti strolled down, the fans let a roar that could be heard all the way in Gainesville, and the players and coaches gathered together to commerorate the year that has been "it" for the Florida Gators.
Stats Show An Interesting Note
The Gators beat Alabama at their own game.
The Crimson Tide had been so effective in third down defense all season, allowing the opponent to convert about 27 percent per game. Florida converted 54 percent on third downs in this game, going 7-13 on third down.
Florida also proved they weren't afraid to run at Alabama. A physical game had the Gators outrush their opponent, posting 142 rushing yards in this game. The Tide usually didn't allow over 80 yards per game on the ground, so it's a significant note, especially since the Gators almost doubled what Alabama usually allows.
Tim Tebow also struck Alabama's weak point, getting a couple big grabs through the air, mainly to Riley Cooper and Louis Murphy (51 yards and 34 yards respectively on their catches) on two fade routes. The Gators posted 216 passing yards on the game.
Florida was also balanced in terms of getting first downs. The Gators got 8 passing first downs, and 9 rushing first downs.
As always, the ever so important time of possession battle played an important role in this one, too. Alabama, who was great in that department all year, failed to hold the football longer than Florida, and all and all I think that was one of several deciding factors in this excellent game.
As a Florida Fan, I'd like to congratulate the Crimson Tide on an outstanding football season, and wish you as well as the SEC as a whole the best of luck in your individual bowl games.
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