Defending national champion Florida won’t play in the SEC championship game or the BCS title game this season, but there’s still a lot riding on the Gators’ regular-season finale.
Heisman Trophy hopeful Tim Tebow looks to continue his run at the prestigious individual honor as the 12th-ranked Gators try to improve their standing for a potential BCS bowl bid when they close the regular season against archrival Florida State in Gainesville on Saturday.
The young Gators (8-3) haven’t matched the team’s performance from last season, when Florida finished 13-1 after a 41-14 BCS title game victory over Ohio State. This year’s team, however, ranks 12th in the BCS standings, and remains hopeful that it can sneak into the school’s fifth BCS bowl game since the system was introduced in 1998.
In his first season as the full-time starting quarterback, Tebow has helped the Gators from falling too far from last season’s benchmark. In Florida’s 59-20 rout of Florida Atlantic last Saturday, he completed 25 of 34 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and also ran 11 times for 31 yards and another score.
Even as a sophomore, he has emerged as a Heisman candidate - perhaps even the frontrunner.
“He’s definitely as deserving as the other guys out there,” offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. “He’s had a phenomenal season. He’s obviously a major, major part of our offense - one of the most important parts of our team - and he’s a great person. If I had an award to give, he’s a guy I wouldn’t mind representing you for that award.”
Tebow’s rushing touchdown last weekend was his 20th of the season, making him the first player in NCAA history to compile at least 20 touchdowns in the air and on the ground in the same season. He has at least one of each in every game this season.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Gators coach Urban Meyer, whose team has scored 159 points while compiling 1,536 total yards in winning its three November games. “I can’t believe that’s never been done before. That’s a great record to have. I’d much rather have our ninth win next week.”
The Seminoles (7-4), though, represent a new challenge for the 6-foot-3, 235-pound quarterback. Florida State linebacker Geno Hayes boldly predicted Monday that “Tim Tebow’s going down.”
“The bigger they are the harder they fall,” Hayes said. “Hopefully we can go out there and shatter his dream.”
Florida State ranks 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense, allowing 99.5 yards per game. Hayes, though, knows it will take a special effort to stop Tebow, whose performance last week helped him pass Georgia’s Garrison Hearst (1992), Alabama’s Shaun Alexander (1999) and LSU’s LaBrandon Toefield (2001) to claim the SEC single-season record for rushing TDs.
“The main thing that concerns us right now is his running ability,” Hayes said. “He’s a great quarterback, but it’s not like we’re going to go in there and just give up because he’s bigger and more agile.”
While Florida State focuses on stopping the run, Florida might lean more heavily on its passing game, which could benefit from the return of wide receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin, who has missed the last two games with a sinus infection, worked out with the team on Sunday, and Meyer expects him to be back in the lineup Saturday.
Harvin’s return would give Florida its full complement of wide receivers for the first time in two months - Andre Caldwell (knee), Riley Cooper (finger) and Cornelius Ingram (ankle) have all missed time this season.
“I think we’re a pretty special group if we’re all healthy and we’re all on it,” Meyer said Sunday. “That helps Tebow obviously and helps the run game and helps everything.”
Among those receivers, Caldwell has emerged as Tebow’s favorite target. He has set career highs in receptions and receiving yards in each of the last two games, catching 11 passes for 148 yards at South Carolina and 13 for 164 against Florida Atlantic. His 177 career receptions are a school record, breaking the previous mark of 172 set by Carlos Alvarez (1969-71).
Caldwell’s previous career high was 124 receiving yards against Florida State last season.
Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden got his 300th win with Florida State last Saturday, 24-16 over Maryland. He has 373 career coaching wins - two ahead of Penn State’s Joe Paterno in their long-running competition for the most victories in major college football. He hasn’t gotten a win over Florida, however, since 2003.
Florida has taken a 30-19-2 edge in the series with three straight victories. Two of those games were decided by seven points, including last season’s matchup, when the eventual national champion Gators escaped from Tallahassee with a 21-14 victory.