Every season Tim Tebow has played at Florida has ended with either a national championship or a Heisman Trophy, so it’s understandable why the senior quarterback was tempted to come back to Gainesville for one more year.
The expectations certainly won’t be any lower as the top-ranked Gators defend their latest BCS title, but they’ll start with a seemingly harmless opener Saturday against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Charleston Southern.
Since throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another in Florida’s 41-14 blowout of Ohio State in the 2006 BCS championship game, Tebow has taken the reins of the Gators’ offense and put up unprecedented numbers.
In 2007, he became the first player in NCAA history to rack up at least 20 touchdowns both passing and rushing, totaling 55 en route to the Heisman Trophy.
With numbers that were still outstanding but not quite as lucrative, Tebow finished third in the Heisman voting last year, but then rushed for a season-high 109 yards to lead the Gators (13-1) to a 24-14 win in the BCS title game over Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Oklahoma.
“The quarterback’s job … is to win,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “We don’t win the ’06 national championship without Tim Tebow. Absolutely not. We certainly don’t win without him last year. Tim has the label as a winner. He won a state championship in high school. He’s done tremendous in college so far and he has another year left.”
Perhaps most important has been Tebow’s leadership. After Florida’s lone defeat last year, 31-30 at home to Mississippi, Tebow gave an emotional speech that was followed by 10 straight wins. The speech is now engraved on a plaque at the team’s facility.
“I felt like he was a prophet for saying it,” linebacker Brandon Spikes said in March. “He just said it and we got it done. He was a prophet.”
The scariest thing for opponents could be Tebow’s health, which he says is as good as it’s been in years after he dealt with various injuries, including a nagging shoulder ailment that needed surgery in the offseason.
“It’s just so much easier now,” Tebow said. “I can take hits and smile, not grunt now. That will be nice.”
One thing that may be tougher for Tebow is an offense without former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who’s now the coach at Mississippi State. The Gators will also have to move on without all-purpose star Percy Harvin and leading receiver Louis Murphy, and Meyer called Florida’s lack of depth at wide receiver and tight end “a concern.”
The running game should be a bit more secure, with 600-yard rushers Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps both back along with an offensive line anchored by twin juniors Mike and Maurkice Pouncey.
The team feels best about its defense, which allowed 12.8 points per game last year to rank fifth in the nation. The whole unit is back, including its leader in Spikes, who passed on the NFL to return for his senior season.
Along with Tebow’s return, that group has players already talking about the possibility of Florida’s first undefeated season, even in a rough-and-tumble SEC.
“With the team we have right now, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “If we just play the best we can play, it’s going to be a reality. … We can win three national championships in four years. Our team will go down in history. You can’t forget a team like that.”
There shouldn’t be many problems at the start with Charleston Southern, which is 0-16 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, including a 52-7 opening loss at Miami last year.
Coach Jay Mills’ Buccaneers (7-5) have never faced Florida, and their only recent game against a ranked team was a 66-10 loss to then-No. 19 Hawaii on Sept. 22, 2007.
A visit to The Swamp will be a tough first full game for junior quarterback A.J. Toscano, who played just over a quarter last season before redshirting.
“He has a really good knowledge of our offense,” Mills told Charleston Southern’s official Web site. “… If that knowledge translates onto the field during game day, which I trust that it will, A.J. will perform very well.”