Florida has a shot to play for the national title—even if it’s a slim shot.
However, the fourth-ranked Gators still need to clear one major hurdle to even have a chance.
The Gators face No. 8 Arkansas in the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Saturday, with the Razorbacks still smarting after seeing their national championship hopes fade away.
For the Gators (11-1, 7-1) to sneak into the BCS title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz., several things have to happen. Florida—which is fourth in the BCS standings this week—has to hope UCLA can beat No. 2 USC on Saturday. Then the Gators have to beat the Razorbacks and hope that is enough to jump ahead of No. 3 Michigan, which only has one loss—to No. 1 Ohio State.
The Gators are being realistic about their chances, but have to be careful to avoid looking past Arkansas (10-2, 7-1), which was in the hunt until a 31-26 loss to LSU last Friday ended its chances of playing for the national title.
“I think the BCS has done the best they possibly could in a very difficult situation,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “For anybody who thinks logically, it’s not the best system, but it’s probably the best at this time.”
The Gators have found a way to win nearly every week this season, squeezing out tight victories when defeat seemed likely. They rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Tennessee 21-20 on Sept. 16, then blocked an extra point and a field goal to get past South Carolina 17-16 on Nov. 11.
Last week against rival Florida State, quarterback Chris Leak directed a 74-yard touchdown drive to start the fourth quarter that gave Florida a 21-14 victory and allowed Meyer to become the first coach in school history to beat Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in each of his first two seasons.
“We’re a bunch of scraping, fighting guys that find a way,” Meyer said. “What we do have is very good chemistry and guys that believe in each other and fight to the end. If you had a choice, that’s the kind of team you’d like to be around.”
Florida finished undefeated in the SEC East and only a 27-17 loss to Auburn on Oct. 14 prevented it from being 12-0 heading into Saturday’s contest. The Gators have played the nation’s toughest schedule according to the NCAA, and can match the school record for wins in a season with a victory over Arkansas. Florida went 12-1 in 1995 and 1996.
“Here’s our style: You got at Tennessee, you’ve got Kentucky, you’ve got Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Auburn and at Tallahassee,” Meyer said. “So much for style. You want to put that one against anyone in the country, let’s go ahead and go.”
Florida may have to go ahead against Arkansas with several key players either banged up or too injured to play. Freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin has a neck injury but still should play on Saturday. Running back DeShawn Wynn, who leads the Gators with 632 yards rushing, is likely out with a shoulder injury and starting linebacker Earl Everett might also miss Saturday’s game.
That’s not good news against the Razorbacks, who are still hungry for a conference title even though their national championship hopes are over.
The Razorbacks are in the SEC championship game for the third time, and unlike in 2002, when they were beaten 30-3 by Georgia, feel like they belong.
“We feel different this year. The last time we went to Atlanta we felt like we went in through the back door,” Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. “This year we came through the front door. We won it outright with one (SEC) loss. We feel good about that. We feel like we have a legitimate chance to win the ball game.”
After losing 50-14 to USC in the season opener, Arkansas won 10 in a row and thrust itself into the national spotlight before last Friday’s loss.
Still, the Razorbacks can win their first outright conference title since 1989, when they were members of the old Southwest Conference.
“There’s still plenty to play for,” Razorbacks defensive tackle Keith Jackson said. “We still get to go to Atlanta and play Florida. This is definitely disappointing, but we’re not done.”
The Razorbacks boast two of the more exciting running backs in college football. Heisman Trophy contender Darren McFadden had 182 yards rushing against LSU, including an 80-yard touchdown run, and set the school’s single-season rushing mark with 1,485 yards.
Felix Jones added 137 rushing yards against LSU and needs 39 more to reach 1,000 for the season. The pair have combined to give Arkansas the nation’s No. 4 rushing attack, averaging 236 yards per game.
Florida has won its last five meetings with Arkansas to take a 5-1 lead in the all-time series. The Gators beat the Razorbacks 45-30 in 2004, in the last meeting between the teams, and also won 34-3 in the 1995 SEC championship game.
Florida is trying to win its first SEC championship since 2000 and its seventh overall.
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