GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Not even Tim Tebow could save the Gators on Saturday.
He sure did try. The Heisman winner spoke to the team before its game against No. 2 Florida State and delivered a message as only he can.
"It really penetrated my soul," said offensive lineman Max Garcia, his eyes watering slightly. "And it was real."
Tebow told the Gators that any man who gets knocked down has the ability to get back up, according to Garcia, but, "A man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back and is changed and is different, that's who we are; that's who the Gators are."
The entire team was "locked in," and Florida came out of the locker room with an urgency that hasn't been seen much around this town for the majority of its first losing season since 1979. At the end of the first quarter Saturday, the Gators were down 3-0 to the heavy favorites but it felt in the stadium like they were winning by three touchdowns.
Florida couldn't hold up, though. Florida State has the impactful Heisman Trophy candidate now. And Jameis Winston led just the way Tebow used to when he played in this rivalry game.
Of course, any comparison between Tebow and Winston is strictly on the field. Winston has been accused of rape, and if he's charged and convicted, he'll disgrace his university.
For now, however, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, and his on-field leadership was on full display Saturday. Before a 96-yard second-quarter drive that changed the game for good, he told his offensive teammates, "This drive is going to define this game."
He was right. The Gators defenders were so hyped up before the drive that they were literally dancing on the field, waiting for Winston and his brethren to line up. The energy and noise could have easily overwhelmed many quarterbacks, but the freshman leader remained composed.
The Seminoles responded to Winston, "I got you!" And Winston came back with "OK, let's do it."
Winston converted a third-and-25, and the rout was on from there. The Seminoles finished the drive with a 45-yard touchdown catch by Kelvin Benjamin and ran away with the game. A 10-0 deficit spiraled into a 37-7 yawner. What could have been a serious challenge to a national championship bid turned into yet another lopsided win for the Seminoles in an 11-0 regular season.
That resilience, fueled in part by Winston's words and his ability, is something the Gators lack. Florida coach Will Muschamp cited a "woe is me" mentality after the game, mentioning "tough situations I wish we handled a little better." Muschamp has told the team "life is not fair," but that hasn't seemed to register. Florida didn't lose to Georgia Southern last week because of its injuries; it lost because it didn't have the right mindset. That's something only peers can build and maintain.
Winston is that kind of peer for the Seminoles. He called out Benjamin last night in front of the entire team, challenging him and telling him, "You're an unstoppable force." Benjamin then went out and had 212 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday. He proved he could indeed be an unstoppable force.
Yes, the Seminoles are stacked with talent. Winston didn't make Benjamin taller or faster. But the Gators are talented too. The Gators went to Tallahassee last season and whipped the Seminoles on their own field, and that Florida State team had 11 players who went on to the NFL. The Florida season highlight video, played for the team last night, had many clips from that game.
The Gators moved to 11-1 that day, and Muschamp truly thought he had the best team in the country. Now the coach is fighting for his job. The difference isn't just personnel. This season, small setbacks turned not into motivation, but into horrendous losses and embarrassing behavior like that shown Saturday by a Gators player who apparently spat at a Seminoles player during a stoppage in play. Part of that is on Muschamp, who clearly hasn't known what to say to turn the tide of negativity, but there was a season-long void in the locker room that he could not fill.
Winston, on the other hand, seems to always know what to say. Friday night, he asked teammates how many of them had ever been undefeated on any level. Not many raised their hands. It was a reminder of the situation, and the opportunity.
Tebow tried to do the same on Saturday: Remind the Gators of the situation, and the opportunity. "I'm going to stick to that for the rest of my life," Garcia said.
"When I saw him, I could just feel his leadership," Garcia added. "His presence, it just demanded that."
Every great team needs presence on the field. Florida State showed it Saturday. Florida has lost it completely.