November 20, 2009
Tebow gazing from the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
How well do you remember Florida pre-Tebow? In case you blocked it out, Urban Meyer was still dealing with the mess of the Ron Zook regime. Four years and two (possibly three) national titles later, we are within sight of the Gators' transition to the post-Tebow era.
Tim Tebow's Florida finale is a play in four acts: (I) Florida International, this Saturday; (II) Florida State, his final game at the Swamp; (III) the SEC Championship Game against Alabama; and (IV) his final college game, whether that is the BCS Championship game or the Sugar Bowl.
What makes the FIU game worthy of inclusion in the finale? Because after four years, it is the closest thing fans will get to a glimpse of the post-Tebow era, when the torch passes from Tebow to heir-apparent John Brantley. In the other three games, Tebow will presumably play the entire game. FIU is so overmatched that it seems crazy to think that Tebow will play past halftime -- perhaps not even past the first quarter.
Here is an interesting bookend: Four years ago, nearly to the day, Florida played 1-AA patsy Western Carolina. After a season of valuable but still spotty responsibilities as a change-of-pace option for Chris Leak, Tebow finally got a sustained opportunity to run Meyer's open-throttle spread offense -- Tebow accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing), nearly 250 yards of offense by himself, and led Florida to a 62-0 romp.
I was in The Swamp for that game and -- with the BCS title game at the time a virtual impossibility -- remember being giddy at the prospects of this quarterback running Florida's offense for the next three years. Expect a similar effect for Brantley against FIU. There won't be the same messianic fervor, obviously. But there will be something almost as valuable: Confidence.
That creates an important, even cathartic event -- for Brantley, for Urban Meyer, for Gator fans, even for Tebow himself. Everyone needs to see that the program Meyer has assembled will be OK without him. There is still so much of the 2009 season left to play -- so much of Tebow's career to unfold -- that it feels weird to think about. But it's out there.
Before Tebow's final game at The Swamp, before his shot at the SEC title, before his shot at a third national title in four years, there is this moment of transition -- a pressure-free appearance for Tebow, in which he can soak in the adulation of the home crowd while watching the future of the Florida program he helped rebuild. That makes it even more important to take this weekend's game for the opportunity it is: To look beyond Tebow to the program's next step.
Don't discount fans getting to see a half or more of Brantley, who some consider the second-best quarterback in the SEC this season, despite having zero truly significant snaps under his belt. The presumption is that Florida can't possibly keep winning at this pace during life "A.T." What if the Gators thrive?
The offense will arguably be more balanced. Without Tebow's ability to act as his own fullback -- his own one-man play-action maneuver -- Florida will be forced to spread the ball around more. Consider what will surround Brantley next season:
• The single best player on Florida's current offense, Aaron Hernandez, will be back, if he scorns the NFL, presumably following up All-American status this year with a run at being a Top 10 draft pick in 2011.
• All three top running backs return: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody. They are joined by top prep running Mack Brown, who might be better than all of them, and "the next Percy Harvin," Andre Debose, who lost his much-anticipated true freshman season this year to a hamstring injury.
• The offensive line may lose the Pouncey twins, but will be anchored by Xavier Nixon, who last week became the first true freshman to start at left tackle for Florida since the early nineties and could be the best freshman lineman in the nation this season. He will protect the right-handed Brantley's blind side.
There is a dumb joke to be made that Florida's offense can't possibly get less inspiring than it has been this season. But the fact is, even with diminished expectations, next season's offense should be better than this year's version -- even if Brantley himself can't plunge ahead for four yards on third-and-short like Tebow can.
Over these last four games -- certainly these final two games of the season (and of Tebow's career) at The Swamp -- the focus of Florida fans should be on Tebow and his legacy. Saturday's cupcake is a chance to foreshadow what happens when that legacy leaves the field. There will be life After Tebow, and it starts Saturday.