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IT TURNS OUT Kathy Belcoff of Keller, Texas, has a mole inside the Florida football program, which is how she came to know that Percy Harvin wouldn't be playing in the SEC championship game before many of his teammates did. At 11:44 a.m. the day before No. 1 Alabama collided with the fourth-ranked Gators in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Belcoff got a text message from her son David Nelson, a reserve wideout who'd caught all of seven passes this season. "I'm getting the start," he exulted. � "All your hard work has paid off," his mother texted back. "Your time." � And so it would prove to be for Nelson and Florida in a transcendent title game, a de facto national championship semifinal featuring a pair of uberintense coaches, four lead changes, a cardiac-arresting fourth-quarter comeback and, quite possibly, a Heisman Trophy--clinching performance by a quarterback who already owns one of those stiff-armed statuettes.
Tim Tebow has traveled far and wide during his three years as a Florida quarterback: to Glendale, Ariz., where he accounted for two touchdowns as a freshman in his team's rout of Ohio State in the 2006 BCS title game; to Times Square a year ago, where he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman; to the Philippines, where last spring he worked at a rural orphanage run by his father's ministry.
Yet for all the life experiences he has accrued, the junior from Jacksonville had never led the Gators to a fourth-quarter comeback win—until last Saturday night. And he did it without his most gifted sidekick. With do-it-all speed merchant Harvin on the sideline in sweatpants nursing a bum right ankle, Florida rallied from a 20--17 deficit, dominating the final 15 minutes en route to a 31--20 victory. As has been the case throughout the Gators' nine-game winning streak, Tebow took the point, bulling for a team-high 57 rushing yards while throwing for 216 and three touchdowns. The first and third of those scoring passes were, incidentally, bull's-eyes to receivers who, as Tide coach Nick Saban lamented, weren't open: "We had them covered about as well as you can cover 'em."
While he's had more prodigious statistical days, Tebow has never given more rein to his inner wild man than he did last Saturday. Throughout the game he wore his emotions on his jersey sleeve, screaming (in an uplifting way, mind you) at not just the guys on offense, but at those on defense and special teams, as well. One of game's more memorable vignettes was of the helmetless Tebow plowing into the Gators' huddled kickoff team late in the fourth quarter, as if he were auditioning to break the wedge. "Just make a play!" he shouted in that huddle. "Let's finish this thing!"
So they did. One big reason Florida is bound for its second BCS title game in three years—the Gators will meet top-ranked Oklahoma in Miami on Jan. 8—is that when number 15 raises his voice, his teammates listen. As Saban himself noticed, "He takes his team on his shoulders."
Another reason the Gators are going to South Florida: In the absence of Harvin, they got serious contributions from all his understudies at wide receiver and running back—B-listers like Nelson, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, Carl Moore and Jeff Demps.
"You don't replace Percy," said Nelson of the player who had scored 16 touchdowns and was averaging 17.0 yards a catch and 8.8 yards a rush. "He's one of a kind. We were just trying to do our jobs."
Each of them did more than that in an epic matchup described by Gators coach Urban Meyer as "one of the best college football games I've ever been a part of." Making it more compelling was the fact that from the outset, this game refused to follow the script. Quick-strike Florida, with 34 plays from scrimmage of 30 yards or longer this season, scored its first touchdown on a methodical nine-play, 59-yard march. Grind-it-out ' Bama answered with a lightning strike that covered 82 yards in two plays.
Alabama's D came into the game ranked in the top five nationally in scoring, rushing, total yardage and pass-efficiency defense. The Tide had been stingiest when it mattered most: Opposing teams had converted just 25% of third downs.
So what happened? Tebow owned third down in the Dome, converting seven of 13 opportunities. All three of his scoring passes came on third down.