In the days leading up to the selection of teams for the BCS championship game, Florida coach Urban Meyer made no secret of his belief that his team deserved to be the opponent for top-ranked and unbeaten Ohio State.
Whether or not his campaigning made a difference, Meyer and the No. 2 Gators have gotten the chance to prove they deserved that shot, and they’ll face Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and the Buckeyes on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz., for the national title.
Meyer argued publicly Florida was the clear choice to oppose the powerful Buckeyes, feeling his team winning the SEC title after playing a brutal schedule, along with Michigan having lost to Ohio State on Nov. 18, left his squad as the one that should oppose the Buckeyes.
Meyer, in fact, had believed the Gators deserved to play Ohio State even before Southern California suffered a stunning loss to UCLA in its season finale. A victory would have put the Trojans, then second in the BCS, in the title game.
“We’re going to tell a group of young men who just went 12-1 with the most difficult schedule against six ranked opponents that they don’t have a chance to go play for a national championship?” Meyer said after the Gators knocked off then-No. 8 Arkansas 38-28 in the SEC championship game Dec. 2. “I’m going to need help with that one.”
Meyer asked much of the media that question before his team was picked to face Ohio State, but other than protests from the Wolverines and coach Lloyd Carr, who called Meyer’s campaigning “inappropriate,” there seemed to be little outrage over the Gators’ selection.
With a BCS score of .944 to edge Michigan’s .934 for the slimmest margin in BCS history, Florida was rewarded by voters for navigating the loaded SEC and suffering its only loss at then-No. 11 Auburn in October.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, being a senior, going to the SEC championship and winning and making a lot of noise and then getting to the big game,” Florida cornerback Reggie Lewis said. “Now, we’ve got one more step and that’s to bring home that title.”
That, of course, is going to be easier said than done as the Gators head back to the national title game for the first time since defeating Florida State 52-20 in the 1997 Sugar Bowl under Steve Spurrier, giving Florida its first championship.
In Smith, who easily won college football’s top individual honor, Meyer and the Gators are tasked with stopping a dynamic player that even Michigan’s defense, then ranked third in the country, couldn’t handle.
Smith guided the 12-0 Buckeyes past the then-No. 2 Wolverines 42-39 in their season finale Nov. 18, completing 29 of 41 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. In securing the spot in Glendale, Smith, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and running back Antonio Pittman turned in numerous big plays and flashed the speed and talent that could prove a nightmare for the Gators.
That isn’t a completely comforting thought for Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who holds Florida in high regard.
“They have as much speed as anyone I’ve seen based on what little I’ve seen on television,” he said, comparing Florida’s personnel to some of the best the Buckeyes have faced in recent years.
“They’ve got the type of defensive speed and aggressiveness of the great defenses we’ve played, whether it’s the most recent one, Michigan, or Texas or Iowa or Miami of Florida. Their style offensively, they’re wide open. And you’d better be focused and aware, because they have a lot of different ways they attack you with great speed.”
And Tressel knows firsthand that being the favorite guarantees nothing in the title game. Many believed top-ranked Miami had too much speed for the Buckeyes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, but Ohio State won its first national championship since 1968 by defeating the Hurricanes 31-24 in double overtime.
With players like Smith, Ginn and Pittman, though, Tressel has to be at least somewhat confident his team, which averaged 410 yards a game, has more than enough to win its second championship in five years.
The mobile and accurate Smith threw for 2,507 yards, 30 touchdowns and only five interceptions this season while compiling a 167.9 passer rating, fourth-best in the nation. He also ran 62 times for 233 yards, and went on to capture the Heisman on Dec. 9 with 801 first-place votes and a 1,662-point margin—both the second-best marks in the 71-year history of the award.
“Finally, now that’s out of the way,” Smith said. “Now let’s move on to preparation for the University of Florida and the national championship.”
Ginn caught 59 passes for 781 yards and nine scores, and is also dangerous in the return game, bringing back 17 kickoffs for 347 yards (20.4-yard average) and 24 punts for 266 yards (11.1 average).
Pittman had 1,171 rushing yards, averaging 5.0 per carry, and 13 TDs.
Slowing those three players will be the challenge for a formidable Florida defense that ranked sixth in the country with 13.5 points and 74.5 rushing yards allowed per game despite playing in what was widely regarded as the nation’s top conference.
Meyer’s team showed exactly what it was capable of doing against star players in the SEC title game. Florida held Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, the runner-up to Smith in the Heisman voting after rushing for 1,558 yards this season, to 73 on 21 carries—50 yards below his season average.
The Gators boast two of the nation’s top defensive backs in cornerback Ryan Smith (eight interceptions) and safety Reggie Nelson (six). Their pass rush is led by a powerful defensive line that includes ends Derrick Harvey (eight sacks) and Jarvis Moss (5 1/2 ).
As good as Florida’s defense is, Ohio State boasts a dominant defensive unit of its own. Gators quarterback Chris Leak directs an offense that averaged 398.1 yards and 28.8 points a contest, but the Buckeyes are giving up only 273.0 yards and 10.4 points per game—second in the nation.
Led by Nagurski Award-winning linebacker James Laurinatis, who had four sacks and a team-high five interceptions, Ohio State’s defense limited opponents to 93.5 yards per game on the ground.
That should prove a challenge for Florida’s DeShawn Wynn, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, each of whom ran for more than 400 yards. The Gators hope their versatile rushing attack can open things up for Leak to find receivers Dallas Baker, who had 56 catches for 897 yards and nine touchdowns, and Andre Caldwell, who caught 55 balls for 571 yards and five scores.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Meyer said. “I think our guys will be motivated.”
Meyer is a native of Astabula, Ohio who earned his master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio State in 1988 and served as a graduate assistant to former Buckeyes coach Earle Bruce in ’86 and ’87.
He is 3-0 as a head coach in bowl games and is only two seasons removed from leading Utah to the Fiesta Bowl, as the Utes became the first team from a non-BCS conference to play in a BCS bowl.
Tressel is 4-1 in bowls, including three victories in the Fiesta Bowl over the last four seasons.
Florida and Ohio State will be meeting for the first time.