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Posted: Thursday January 8, 2009 10:24AM; Updated: Thursday January 8, 2009 3:10PM
Austin Murphy Austin Murphy >
MURPHY'S LAW

Florida's Meyer has Gators on brink of second title in three years

Story Highlights

Florida coach Urban Meyer reflects on state of the program as title game nears

The coach feels a lot better about his team's chances with a healthy Percy Harvin

Meyer hasn't said much about motiviating his team; he doesn't have to

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Coach Urban Meyer and the Gators have their eyes on the national championship trophy.
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MIAMI -- Urban Meyer is heading south on I-95 in the teeth of rush hour. But there is no slowing the Gators coach, who is riding shotgun in an unmarked police car. Behind him are the team buses, around them is a 20-motorcycle police escort. Officers range ahead, sweeping motorists from the left lane, temporarily closing on-ramps. At this moment it is, indeed, great to be a Florida Gator.

Twenty motorcycles, observes a passenger in the backseat. Think that might be a little bit of overkill? I'm not sure visiting heads of state rate 20 motorcycles.

Well, Meyer deadpans, they're not playing for a national championship.

It was Monday. Practice had been crisp. Meyer and his staff had begun backing off the intensity to let their guys' legs start to recover for Thursday night. Today was Percy Harvin's big test, and he passed it. The all-purpose athlete with what Meyer describes as "the best first step in football," who sprained his right ankle on Nov. 29, finally looks like himself. "Today I saw what I needed to see," Meyer said. "That's big."

As the mile markers went by, he spoke of the happiness he felt for his Utes, who shocked Alabama, 31-17, in the Sugar Bowl. (Before arriving in Gainesville, Meyer led Utah to a 12-0 season and Fiesta Bowl victory in 2004). He confessed his relief at getting through the weekend without any nocturnal flare-ups. ("There are a lot of temptations in Miami on a Friday and Saturday night, when curfew is 2 a.m," he said.)

We talked about the previous evening's Under Armour All-American Game, the explosion of interest in the recruiting wars, and the spotlight under which these kids now find themselves. "It's good," he said, "but it's not good. Kids are taking hats off" -- representing the schools they won't attend -- "throwing 'em down on the ground. Well, that hat represents a university."

Meyer allows that playing for a second national title in three years is a powerful recruiting pitch.

How different is it from four years ago, when he got hired at Florida? What's the vibe, going into schools and homes of recruits?

"We're fighting different battles," he said. "When we first got here, we were trying to justify who we were, getting questions like, 'Is the spread gonna work? What are you guys doing here? Can you get Florida back'" to the top? Now the question is, Can I play there? Kids want to get on the field early. I try to convince 'em they can."

Exhibit A: Eight underclassmen will start on defense for the Gators tonight. Playing one of the most critical roles will be Janoris Jenkins, a true freshman from Pahokee, Fla. While he "expected to make an impact early," he told me on Monday, "I didn't think I'd start every game." But he has. Jenkins is a lockdown corner about whom Meyer -- a man not given to easy praise -- uses the same superlatives once reserved for the young Percy Harvin. "He's going to be a great, great player." Enjoy him while you've got him, coach.

Jenkins normally rotates to the "field" side: if the ball's on the right hash, he'll line up left, where there's more ground to cover. To save time and avoid getting caught out of position by the Sooners' hurry-up offense, Jenkins and fellow corner Joe Haden will simply play "left" and "right" corner -- choosing one side of the field and staying there.

Jenkins' ability to play on an island, without safety help, frees up defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to be more creative with his blitzes. They'll need that tonight. The '06 Gators defense that clubbed Ohio State into submission featured bookend bad-asses Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey, who combined for five sacks of Troy Smith.

This Florida team lacks that threat coming off the edge. It will need to get pressure on Sam Bradford other ways.

One of the challenges of game-planning the Sooners, Meyer said, was that "they played relatively few competitive snaps." That is, they blew out opponents so early "it's tougher to find their tendencies when they've got third-team guys in the game."

Meyer, not surprisingly, declined to be drawn into a discussion of Big 12 defenses in general or the Sooners pass defense in particular, which ranked 98th this season. That's why it was so surprising that OU cornerback Dominique Franks -- who has clearly not learned the lesson of Larry Birdine -- went out of his way to dis Tim Tebow.

When I mentioned Franks' frankness to Meyer, he let it drift. Be assured, however, that inside the program, in the meeting rooms and locker room and -- more worrisome for the Sooners -- inside Tebow's head, those remarks will be wrung for every ounce of motivational juice. In addition to his long list of good deeds, the Florida quarterback has a long memory, and a fondness for exacting vengeance.

Two years ago the Gators were nine-point dogs to the Buckeyes. They're favored by 3 against Oklahoma. But don't tell Meyer. If it suits him -- and it probably will -- he'll play the underdog card with his team, telling them no one respects their offense, when, in fact, Dominique Franks would seem to be the only player in the country who feels that way.

 
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