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Why That Gator is Grinning
Phil Taylor
January 17, 2007
Opponents—and pollsters—underestimated the toughness, determination and talent of Urban Meyer's Florida crew
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January 17, 2007

Why That Gator Is Grinning

Opponents—and pollsters—underestimated the toughness, determination and talent of Urban Meyer's Florida crew

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PERHAPS, KNOWING WHAT WE KNOW NOW, WE should take another look at that familiar Florida logo, the one of the alligator with his teeth bared. Upon closer examination, it seems that there's a hint of a smile, a sly, Mona Lisa?like grin in his expression. It's as if he's amused to see the rest of us finally figure out something that he knew all along. Could it be that the Gator is having the last laugh?

It would be hard to blame him or the other faithful inhabitants of Gator Nation for having a few chuckles at the expense of the nonbelievers, who consisted of essentially the entire college football world except for those in Florida's blue and orange. Until they stunned Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 8, the Gators were held in remarkably low regard for a team that had won the championship of the nation's toughest league, the Southeastern Conference, and headed into their matchup with Ohio State with a 12?1 record.

ALMOST ANYWHERE other than in the Sunshine State, Florida was widely considered not so much a worthy entrant into the title game but a symbol of the flaws in the Bowl Championship Series. The question wasn't whether the Gators could beat Ohio State, it was whether they even deserved the opportunity to try, what with mighty Michigan having lost only once, by three points on the road to the top-ranked Buckeyes. Nothing against Florida, the thinking went, but the only thing that put the Gators in the championship game was the national distaste for an Ohio State?Michigan rematch.

Of course, we know better now that the Gators are champions. We know better than to underestimate the quality of a team honed by the steely competition of the SEC, in which Florida knocked off three teams ( Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee) that finished the regular season in the Top 25. We know better than to take for granted the varied talents of the Gators' fire-and-ice quarterback duo, the coolly efficient senior, Chris Leak, and the impassioned freshman, Tim Tebow. We know that speedy freshman Percy Harvin is a burgeoning rushing and receiving threat who just might have a Heisman Trophy in his future. We know that a stingy defense ranked sixth nationally against the rush, as Florida's was, can make its share of plays against any offense, even one as prolific as Ohio State's.

It now seems so obvious that Florida was perfectly suited to challenge Ohio State. In addition to having the talent, the Gators also had the resolve to beat the No. 1 team in the nation. If they hadn't, they never would have survived the obstacles that arose on their way to the title game. There was a 17?7 deficit at Tennessee that they turned into a skin-of-their-teeth 21?20 win on Dallas Baker's fourth-quarter touchdown catch, a disappointing 27?17 loss to Auburn and a big scare against South Carolina, when defensive end Jarvis Moss saved the day and Florida's national championship hopes with a blocked field goal that preserved a 17?16 victory.(As a bonus the Gators escaped the embarrassment of seeing the Ol' Ball Coach—former Florida coach Steve Spurrier—return to the Swamp and engineer the upset for the Gamecocks.)

The Gators also had the fortitude to make a tough decision and the resilience to handle the consequences. When coach Urban Meyer kicked one of Florida's top linemen, defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, off the team in November for various violations of team rules, including marijuana use, it appeared to be a crushing blow to the Gators' defense. But thanks largely to a pair of less-celebrated interior linemen, Steven Harris and Joe Cohen, the unit didn't miss a beat. In fact, the Florida defense may have come up with a prophetic moment in the SEC championship game, when it limited Arkansas's spectacular tailback, Darren McFadden, to just 73 rushing yards in a 38?28 victory.

Still, even after seeing the Gators find ways to win week after week, we somehow didn't appreciate that we were seeing a champion in the making, largely because we were too preoccupied with other story lines. Ohio State and Michigan were the Big Ten titans, USC was the glamorous West Coast contender, and teams such as Rutgers and Wake Forest were the lovable upstarts. Florida, meanwhile, wasn't supposed to be able to rise to the top of the SEC, in which LSU and Auburn had higher profiles. The Gators were good, but there always seemed to be someone who was, if not a little better, at least a little more worthy of attention.

But maybe that was to Florida's advantage. While other teams were occupying the nation's attention, Urban Meyer's team was free to keep improving outside the spotlight until they were ready to take center stage against Ohio State.

The Gators can't be ignored or underestimated any longer, because they have won every prize there is to win and in the process vindicated the BCS, at least for this year. "Win one for the system" may not have a Gipper-like ring to it, but that is essentially what Florida did. Who can quibble with the polls and computers when they successfully identified the one team that could handle the Buckeyes? The Gators have beaten the best—therefore they are the best. In the convoluted world of the BCS, that simplicity is refreshing.

Did Meyer and his men know all along that this day was coming? That Gator in the logo might have the answer. Take another look. He just winked at you.