CATCH OF THE DAY
FSU cornerback Tony Carter could only watch as Dallas Baker hauled in the game-winning pass from Chris Leak in the final quarter. It was the first time Florida had won three in a row against their in-state rivals since a six-game streak from 1981 through '86. Said Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, "They're doggone good."
TOO TOUGH TO FAIL
With a national title shot on the line, the Gators beat back the Arkansas Razorbacks—and their own demons—in a hard-fought SEC title game
THE SCORE FLASHED ON THE VIDEO SCREENS THROUGHOUT THE GEORGIA DOME, AND immediately the crowd let out a deafening roar that could be heard as far away as the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. UCLA 13, USC 9. The door was officially blown open for Florida to claim a spot against Ohio State in the BCS national championship game, and word quickly spread to the Gators' locker room. Florida coach Urban Meyer did his best to quell the talk, which went from whispers to all-out whooping, but he knew it was fruitless.(Heck, he may have been the most excited.) It was only halftime of the SEC title game, with Florida leading gritty Arkansas by 10. But the Gators finally had the opportunity they had been lobbying for over the previous two weeks, and with the nation—and more important the voters of the Harris and Coaches' polls—watching, they weren't about to let it slip away.
Florida had its moments of brilliance and ineptitude in the final 30 minutes, the latter including a pair of third-quarter turnovers that nearly cost it the game. In the end, though, the Gators did what they needed to do to state their case for a trip to Glendale, Ariz. With an impressive 38?28 victory, Florida was king of the nation's best conference, the SEC, after having played the toughest schedule of all 119 Division I-A teams.
The Gators showed their offense wasn't stuck in first gear, piling up 396 total yards. Their rushing defense, ranked fifth in the nation going into the game, held Arkansas's dynamic rushing duo of Darren McFadden (21 carries, 73 yards) and Felix Jones (13,57) in check.
You want style points? How about a gutsy fake punt from the Florida 15-yard line with the Gators trailing 21?17 in the third quarter? The gamble worked, as punter Eric Wilbur flipped the ball to Jemalle Cornelius, who went around left end for 17 yards and a first down. Or Florida's Percy Harvin, who demonstrated why he's unquestionably the best freshman in the nation by showcasing his explosiveness with 167 total yards, including a breakaway 67-yard touchdown run.
For weeks Meyer had been politicking for a shot at the national title, but on this night the Gators let their play speak for itself—well, almost. " Florida belongs," Meyer said. "The other team [ Michigan] had a shot. We went 12?1, and I think the country wants to see the Southeastern Conference champion against a Big Ten champion. That's what this is all about."
Meyer later conceded he was excited, even energized when he got word of USC's loss to UCLA, but he tried to downplay the significance of the result to his players and to himself. He knew if his team wasn't focused, Arkansas would knock Florida all the way back to the Capital One Bowl. And the Razorbacks nearly did.