Led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Florida should again boast one of the top offenses in the nation. On defense, though, the Gators likely need some major improvement to have any chance of making the BCS title game.
Fifth-ranked Florida hopes its defense can catch up with its high-powered offense and give a strong effort in Saturday’s season opener against Hawaii.
After winning the national championship in 2006, Florida was a bit of a disappointment last season. The Gators went 9-4 and ended the year with a 41-35 defeat to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl - a loss that still haunts their defensive players after they allowed the Wolverines to score twice in the final six minutes.
Florida’s defense was the main reason last season’s team was unable to make another run at a national title. The Gators yielded 28 or more points six times and gave away the lead in three of their losses.
“People questioned us last year,” said linebacker Brandon Spikes, a first-team All-SEC selection last season after finishing second in the league with 131 tackles. “It won’t be like that again.”
Spikes is one of eight starters returning to a defense that allowed the fifth-most points in the SEC (25.5 points per game), but he will likely sit out Saturday after injuring his right foot during practice last week.
Florida’s defense should get tested, as the Warriors were the highest-scoring offense (43.4 ppg) in the nation last season. Hawaii, though, will have a different look this year because quarterback Colt Brennan, a Heisman Trophy finalist, has graduated and June Jones, coach of the run-and-shoot offense, has moved on to Southern Methodist.
The Gators offense also might look a bit different in the opener, as Tebow’s top target, speedster Percy Harvin, is still battling a right heel injury that required offseason surgery.
Harvin, a preseason all-conference selection, had team highs of 59 receptions for 858 yards and rushed for 764 yards as a sophomore last season. He participated in 7-on-7 drills Tuesday, but coach Urban Meyer said Wednesday it was unlikely Harvin would play in this game.
Florida is equipped to handle Harvin’s absence, as the Gators have a bevy of wide receiver options for Tebow in senior Louis Murphy, redshirt freshman Deonte Thompson and junior college transfer Carl Moore.
Florida was third in the nation in scoring (42.5) last season, and Tebow is coming off arguably the best offensive season by any player in college football history.
As a sophomore, Tebow threw for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns while running for 895 yards and 23 scores, becoming the first player in BCS history to rush and pass for at least 20 touchdowns in a single season. His passer rating of 172.5 was the second-highest in the nation and he became the first underclassman to win the Heisman Trophy, prompting Meyer to call him “the best quarterback of our era.”
Meyer is planning on cutting down on Tebow’s carries this season to about 10 a game after he ran 210 times last year - an average of 16.2 carries per game.
“At the end of the day, the objective is to get a win,” Meyer said. “That’s very clearly No. 1, bolded and underlined. No. 2 is to be smart in how you win it and utilize the personnel that you have… . Should we have a limited number of Tebow carries? Yes.”
This will be the first meeting between the Gators and the Warriors, and Hawaii hopes this game against a SEC opponent goes better than the last.
The Warriors won their first 12 games last season to receive a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, but they were completely dominated and lost 41-10.
“It’s no secret how good they are,” backup quarterback Inoke Funaki said of the SEC. “So we just have to be as ready as we can.”
First-year Warriors coach Greg McMackin has named sophomore Brent Rausch, who has no playing experience at Hawaii, the starting quarterback to take over for Brennan, who was drafted by the Washington Redskins.
Hawaii has won eight straight road games dating back to 2006, but the Gators have won 18 consecutive openers and 38 of their last 39 openers at Florida Field.