It’s tough for Florida to forget about winning the school’s most recent national championship. It might be even tougher for the Gators to actually accomplish it two years in a row.
The sixth-ranked Gators begin their defense of the BCS title they won in January when they open at home against Western Kentucky on Saturday.
Florida, which went 13-1 and routed Ohio State 41-14 for the national championship, looks to become the first school to win consecutive outright national titles since Nebraska in 1994-95.
“It’s unfair to say forget that ever happened,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “I want our kids to remember it. … Let’s just get back and do it again.”
That could be a challenge after losing nine starters from a defense that allowed 13.6 points per game and six from an offense that averaged 29.7 points a contest. Making repeating more of a chore, Florida has just 21 scholarship players from its junior and senior classes.
Add in that Tennessee, Georgia and LSU are all serious contenders to win the SEC title, and the Gators should have their work cut out for them.
“We have a target on our backs right now,” receiver Andre Caldwell said. “We have to defend ourselves. We are going to get the best from everybody and we have to bring our best week in and week out.”
That starts Saturday when sophomore Tim Tebow makes his starting debut at quarterback for the Gators in their first ever meeting with Western Kentucky, which begins the first of two transitional seasons before officially earning Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) status.
A highly touted recruit out of high school, Tebow was 22-for-33 for 358 yards with five touchdown passes while backing up four-year starter Chris Leak last season. He also ran 89 times for 478 yards and eight touchdowns, including one against Ohio State.
Tebow will have plenty of options in Florida’s spread formation, led by Caldwell and versatile sophomore Percy Harvin.
Caldwell caught 57 passes for 577 yards and six TDs in 2006, while Harvin rushed for 428 yards and caught 34 passes for 427 yards.
Harvin, though, was plagued by an ankle sprain last season and is dealing with a nagging Achilles’ tendon injury, but is expected to be ready Saturday.
“We better make sure the ball’s in his hand an awful lot,’” offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. “He gives you a lot of flexibility.”
Junior end Derrick Harvey returns to anchor a young defense after recording a team-high 11 sacks last season for Florida, which must replace 10 of its top 12 tacklers.
Despite some inexperience and dealing with the pressures that come with trying to repeat as champions, the Gators should be in good shape to win their 18th straight season and home opener Saturday. They last lost an opener on Sept. 9, 1989, falling 24-19 to Mississippi.
Western Kentucky went 6-5 as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) last season, but will face a 2007 schedule featuring six FBS teams as it prepares to officially join the Sun Belt Conference in 2009.
Its biggest test will no doubt come Saturday.
“We understand that this is a challenge, and look at it as a great opportunity,” said Western Kentucky coach David Elson, whose team returns 10 starters from both sides of the ball. “Our guys are excited about going down there and playing this game.”
Saturday will mark the third straight season Western Kentucky will face an SEC team. The Hilltoppers lost 48-12 at Georgia to open 2006 and 37-14 at Auburn in 2005.
Junior David Wolke, a transfer from Notre Dame, will replace four-year starter Justin Haddix at quarterback. Sophomore running backs Tyrell Hayden and Andrew McCloud combined for 758 yards and six touchdowns last season and will try to replace Lerron Moore, who finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,396 yards.