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Florida still has the look of a juggernaut
A 13-1 record can be interpreted in a few ways.
The 2006 Florida Gators went 13-1, snuck up on the world, and then slapped it in the face with a stunning national championship blowout over a heavily favored Ohio State. The 2008 Gators went 13-1 with a tremendous offense and a brick wall of a defense in an inspired season capped off by a national championship win over Sam Bradford and Oklahoma. The 2009 Gators went 13-1 in a year that became the Bataan Death March rather than a coronation for one of college football’s greatest teams.
Expectations are always high in the SEC, especially at a place like Florida, but last year’s team appeared to be crushed by its own expectations. With almost everyone of note coming back (outside of receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy), Florida didn’t just want to win the SEC title; it didn’t just want to win the national title; it wanted to go down as the greatest team in the history of the sport.
Under that impossible weight, the Gators struggled a bit too much against mediocre teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi State, saw the their season take a frightening turn when Tim Tebow got knocked into Toontown by Kentucky, and capped off the regular season ride by getting flattened by Alabama in the SEC Championship. Were the Tide 32-13 better than the Gators? Not really, but that 'Bama team was fresh, fired up (after losing to Florida in the 2008 SEC title game), and focused while Florida had the look of a team that had nothing left in the tank. Meanwhile, the coach had nothing left both mentally and physically.
Meyer decided to come back to coaching because his team had a really, really good practice in preparation for the Orange Bowl demolition of Cincinnati, he went bonkers on a reporter who dared to blog about WR Deonte Thompson’s thoughts on the difference between John Brantley’s downfield passing skills compared to Tebow’s, and he started throwing around the word “family” way too often, as if he was trying to circle the wagons. But instead of the program imploding and taking a big step back in what should be a rebuilding time, Meyer and company brought in one of the greatest recruiting classes in the last 25 years to show that everything is right on track.
So after all the drama, all the controversy, and all the Tebow, now Florida gets to take a little bit of a deep breath. Instead of trying to make an all-timer of a statement, it can simply go after winning the national title for a third time in five years. Oh yes, there’s no reason to tone down the expectations just because the program lost Tebow, Mackey Award winner Aaron Hernandez, should-have-been Thorpe Award winner Joe Haden (Tennessee’s Eric Berry won), Rimington Award winner Maurkice Pouncey, the top two wide receivers (Riley Cooper and David Nelson), linebackers Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and leading-tackler Ryan Stamper, ends Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham, and safety Major Wright. Nobody gets better after losing 12 players of that caliber. But just because the 2010 Gators aren’t going to be as good as the 2009 version it doesn’t mean they can’t win the national title.
Four starters return to a very big and very good offensive front, there’s speed to burn at receiver and running back, and yes, Brantley really is that good. The defense has the best tackle rotation in America, the linebackers are fast, the safeties are fantastic, and the depth across the board is boosted by a recruiting class of true freshman that alone would beat about 75 other teams.
The goal now is to learn from 2009. Because of the talent that Meyer has stockpiled, and because this is perceived as a reloading year, there will be a little bit of a grace period. The 2011 season will have national title-or-bust expectations, so Florida, and especially Meyer and his health, has to try to relax just a wee bit to avoid the burnout that cost the program a national title. The talent is in place, the coaching is peerless, and the infrastructure is conducive to winning and winning big. If only Meyer and company could enjoy the ride.
What to watch for on offense: The attempt to put a square peg into a round hole. It would be interesting to see what a pro-style coaching staff would do with the talent on the Florida offense. Meyer will try to keep elements of his beloved spread attack with John Brantley running a little bit, and quarterback-turned-tight end, David Reed, acting a bit like Tebow as the offense tries to go back to 2006 when Chris Leak and Tebow traded turns. However, the Gators have a massive and experienced offensive front, built perfectly to pound away with the ground game, and has an NFL-caliber quarterback in Brantley who can make secondaries look silly thanks to the mismatches created by the speedy Florida receivers. Even with a little mix of I-formation along with the spread, the offense will still blow up for around 450 yards per game with big play after big play.
What to watch for on defense: The tackles. As is, the combination of Lawrence Marsh, Omar Hunter, Jaye Howard and Terron Sanders might form the best group of tackles in college football. The scary part? They’re probably not the most talented defensive linemen on the team. Ronald Powell might be the nation’s top prospect, and he’ll flourish on the end, but his 2010 classmates, the huge and talented Leon Orr and Sharrif Floyd, have the ready-made bodies to step into the middle of the line and form a brick wall. The Gators will be devastating up the gut, and that will allow everything to work on the outside.
The team will be far better if... The offensive line can pass protect. The sack total of last year (28) is a bit misleading since Tebow held on to the ball far too long sometimes because a) he was Tebow and b) the downfield pass plays sometimes take ten days to work in the Gator attack. Brantley will need time to let his receivers fly up the field, and the line that’s experienced, but not necessarily a wall against speed rushers, has to keep him clean. If Brantley gets hurt, it’s uh-oh time with a shaky backup situation.
The schedule: The Gators will certainly be tested in what should be a fascinating season. Going to Tennessee isn’t that big a deal against a rebuilding Vols team, but it’s coming off what’s sure to be a hard-fought game against a South Florida squad looking to make a huge statement. Kentucky could be a letdown game before dealing with the two big boys from the West: at Alabama and LSU. If the Gators win both of those games, it’s game on for the national title, but a loss to the Tide and a win over the Tigers would keep BCS Championship hopes alive as long as there aren’t any other major gaffes along the way. Georgia is going to be tougher and Florida State will be better, especially in Tallahassee, but there’s not a game outside of the Alabama-LSU back-to-backers that the Gators won’t be double-digit favorites to win.
Best offensive player: Senior C Mike Pouncey. Brantley could change that in a big hurry, but going into the fall the team’s top offensive player might be Pouncey, who isn’t quite the player his twin brother, Maurkice, is, but still could win the Rimington Trophy as the nation's outstanding center. Mike can play anywhere on the line, and there’s a chance he could move back to his guard spot if injuries hit and the combination isn’t working.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB John Brantley. No one’s asking him to be Tebow, and it’s a major plus in a can’t-fill-his-shoes sort of way that he’s a completely different quarterback than the Denver Bronco. However, the season is all on him since the No. 2 option, Trey Burton, is a true freshman and Jordan Reed, despite being recruited as a quarterback, is a tight end. Brantley has to be great for Florida to win the SEC title, and if he’s the NFL player many think he could be, he could take the program even higher.
The season will be a success if... Florida wins the national championship. Sorry, but Alabama and Texas are reloading, too, USC is so 2004, and no one else is that great. If you’re Florida, do you really think you can’t beat Ohio State, or Boise State, or anyone, if you’re in Glendale on Jan. 10? There isn’t a killer in college football this year, and there’s no real reason a team this talented should be aiming low … ever.
Key game: Oct. 30 vs. Georgia. The Gators can get by with a split of the Alabama/LSU showdowns as long as they win the East. However, they probably can’t win the East without getting by a resurgent Georgia in The Cocktail Party. The Bulldogs are quietly loaded and should be hitting their stride by this point in the year, and depending on what Florida does against the Tide and the Tigers, the pressure will be all on the orange and blue side of the field.
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