— For nearly two weeks, fans of the top-ranked Florida Gators have obsessed over the health of quarterback Tim Tebow as Saturday night’s huge SEC game at LSU approached.
Will he play?
Should he play? What if he suffers another concussion?
For nearly two weeks, while waiting for the latest Tebow health update, practically everyone has lost sight of the biggest factor that could carry Florida to another national championship.
In what has become an all-Tebow, all-the-time approach, the Florida defense often gets overlooked. How could that be? After all, the Gators returned all 11 starters — the entire two-deep roster — to a unit that shut down one of the great offenses of our time, the Sam Bradford-led Oklahoma Sooners, in the national title game.
Well, that’s predictable. Tebow’s offense can be intoxicating. Tebow’s offense can look unstoppable.
But it boils down to defense. Tebow or no Tebow, that Gators defense was always going to pave Florida’s route to the BCS Championship Game.
Before the season, Gators defensive back Joe Haden had a twinkle in his eye as he spoke about Florida’s defense possibly approaching all-time status. What’s left after your team wins a national title? Well, there is immortality. The mention of that word perked up Haden and his defensive mates.
Why does defense play such a pivotal role?
Gators coach Urban Meyer is 0-for-2 in Baton Rouge, the last loss being a 28-24 defeat in 2007. Bottom line there? When it mattered most, the Gators couldn’t stop LSU, which converted five fourth-down situations. That was the season of Tebow’s Heisman Trophy.
But even with Tebow’s magnificent numbers — the 20-20 double, 20 touchdowns passing and 20 touchdowns rushing — Meyer and his staff knew something had to change for the Gators to again raise the crystal football trophy.
When Florida defeated Ohio State after the 2006 season, it was largely achieved by withering defensive pressure on Buckeyes’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith.
When Florida defeated Oklahoma after last season, it was largely achieved by withering defensive pressure on Bradford, the Sooners’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Get the picture?
For Florida to get a trip to Pasadena — insert here the speculation about withering defensive pressure on Texas’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Colt McCoy — it won’t be entirely dictated by Tebow.
The Gators have a capable quarterback in John Brantley. Actually, he’s more than capable, having been a blue-chip quarterback coming out of high school, when every powerful school in the nation would’ve gladly signed him. Brantley can manage the game just fine.
Let’s remember another point about Florida-LSU.
Before the season, this date was circled as the moment that could decide the SEC’s direction. That still applies. But neither the Gators nor the Tigers have been overwhelmingly impressive, despite their unbeaten records.
The SEC’s best team will not be playing in Baton Rouge on Saturday night.
The SEC’s best team is Alabama.
And for that reason, it looks extremely likely that an SEC team will reach the BCS Championship Game for the fourth consecutive season. In fact, if Florida beats LSU, we could be looking at an incredible unbeaten vs. unbeaten Florida-Alabama tangle in the SEC title game.
There’s a common denominator here.
It’s how the SEC will be won.
It’s how Saturday night’s Florida-LSU game will be decided, too. Tebow or no Tebow, defense remains the strength of the Florida Gators.
Q: Please, please don’t tell me Ohio State has a shot at reaching the title game. I see the Buckeyes creeping up the rankings each week.
— Keith from Macon, Ga.
A: No worries, Keith. Can’t see Ohio State (4-1) making a run to the BCS Championship Game. Two reasons.
There are too many hurdles. Texas and Boise State probably won’t lose again. There’s a realistic chance for either Florida or Alabama to finish unbeaten in the SEC. So even in the unlikely event of an 11-1 finish by the Buckeyes, Ohio State still could be out.
Ohio State will have at least one more loss. I see four teams remaining on the schedule — Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa and Michigan — that can beat the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes should be most concerned with getting to the Rose Bowl.
Q: What’s going on with Cal?
— Mike Richardson from Louisville, Ky.
A: When the preseason rankings were released, I felt certain there were two teams (Oklahoma State, Ole Miss) that were receiving too much hype. I could see early stumbles by the Cowboys and Rebels.
Cal? I believed the Golden Bears were legitimate challengers in the Pac-10. Guess I got fooled again. Since Cal’s monumental triple-overtime upset of USC in 2003 — the season the Trojans shared the national title with LSU — haven’t we all been waiting for the Golden Bears to take that next step?
We’ve been waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
Cal had 17 returning starters and running back Jahvid Best, the best Heisman candidate not named Bradford, McCoy or Tebow.
Well, the past two weekends, Best has been bottled up as Oregon and USC dared the Golden Bears to pass. Cal simply wasn’t up to it. Quarterback Kevin Riley (an astoundingly poor 27 of 71 on pass attempts through those two games) couldn’t produce.
What’s more, the Cal defense has been shredded. It reached rock bottom against USC when celebrated cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson took a poor angle and missed completely as Trojans running back Joe McKnight soared by for a 38-yard touchdown run.
The cheer has been used so much at sporting events, it has become a cliché. But with Cal, it suddenly applies.