Promising Florida hosts Ole Miss, stirring memories of ‘The Promise’

Percy Harvin (left) and Tim Tebow were leaders on the 2008 Florida Gators team that would capture the program's third national title.

Collegiate Images/Jay Metz-Univ of Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There is a buzz in the air here that has been missing far too long, especially for anyone who basked in the shared glory of just a few short years ago.

The revival took place in a matter of minutes Saturday night.

First, a throw by Will Grier, a catch by Antonio Callaway, and a block by Brandon Powell — touchdown Gators. And finally, wide right by Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley.

The Swamp shook. The campus roared. The town partied.

In the days since, a big-game atmosphere from yesteryear has infiltrated the streets around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The last time two ranked teams played on Florida Field was in 2012 when the Gators defeated South Carolina in a late-season SEC East showdown.

Games like Saturday’s tilt between the No. 25 Gators and No. 3 Ole Miss used to be the norm when Tim Tebow was the BMOC.

Tebow’s Gators played in one big game after another. They rarely lost, but one they did – a 31-30 heartbreaker to Ole Miss in 2008, the last meeting between the schools – is forever etched into Gator lore.

"I remember that we didn’t play as good as we could have, and I remember that we kind of took our foot off the gas a little bit and we were coasting," said Tebow, in town last weekend for his job with the SEC Network. "I think that [had] a lot to do with my lack of leadership in that game."

Tebow slumped on the floor after the game, in tears at the devastating loss.

Once he regained his composure, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner added to his legend.

An engraved plaque titled "The Promise" is posted on a wall outside the stadium, words spoken by Tebow after the Rebels upset the No. 4-ranked Gators on a warm late September afternoon seven years ago.

Learn from mistakes

I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this.

Those 14 words proved prophetic.

"That was for the fans,’’ Tebow said. "What I felt in my heart."

The Gators didn’t lose again for more than a year, reeling off a school-record 22-game win streak that included the final 10 games of the ’08 season, capped by a 24-14 victory over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship to win their second national title in three years.

The Gators were the kings of college football and Tebow the most famous player in the sport.

Fast forward seven years and so much has changed. The Gators are the underdogs Saturday against an Ole Miss team led by Hugh Freeze, who was coaching at tiny Lambuth University in Tennessee on Sept. 27, 2008.

And in a twist made for Hollywood, Saturday’s game features a key figure who helped spoil Florida’s run of unprecedented success during the Tebow era: Gators head coach Jim McElwain. McElwain was Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2009 when Florida’s bid for an undefeated season and third national title in four years crashed with a 32-13 loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game.

McElwain is only four games into his UF career, but he was hired to reintroduce Florida fans to a flashy offense and games like this.

So far, so good as the Gators returned to the national rankings for the first time in two years this week and are off to a 4-0 start.

He might be new to Florida, but McElwain knew to enjoy the atmosphere following Florida’s 28-27 come-from-behind win over Tennessee.

And he told his players to embrace the energy around campus leading up to Saturday’s clash with the Rebels.

Florida Gators notebook

"Enjoy this. It’s exciting. You’ve got one of the top-ranked teams in the United States of America coming in here and we’re playing an SEC game,” he said Wednesday. "I mean, that’s fun, let’s go enjoy it and see what happens."

McElwain’s message has hit home.

"We can play ball with anybody,’’ senior linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We’re ready to go."

For the majority of players on Florida’s roster, Saturday’s game is the most-anticipated by Gator Nation in their time at UF. The Gators won just 11 games over the past two seasons and are off to their first 4-0 start since 2012 when they opened 7-0 and earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

Junior running back Kelvin Taylor has heard stories from his father, former Gators All-American Fred Taylor, about what The Swamp was like when he played in the 1990s.

He experienced it for himself as Callaway raced toward the end zone for the game-winning score against the Vols.

"The stadium was just getting louder and louder,’’ Taylor said. "It was unreal. It felt great. That’s the first time I ever saw the stadium like that. It was rocking. It was ridiculous."

The next step for the Gators is to make sure the victory over the Vols isn’t the highlight of the season. Taylor envisions it as the start of something special.

While Florida’s fast start under McElwain has surprised many, and few national pundits are giving them much of a chance against the high-powered Rebels, Taylor is confident this team can create more excitement for a program that has lacked much in recent years.

Guess who's back?

"This is why we come to the University of Florida to play in big games like this,’’ Taylor said. "It’s going to be a great feeling to go out there and ball-out in front of all of our fans and put on a great show for them."

McElwain has voiced a cautiously optimistic tone.

"These guys are real,” he said. "Their ranking is well-deserved. How good are we? I don’t know. I do know this: our guys will probably go ahead and run out of the tunnel. Our expectations, we set a pretty high bar.

"Am I really happy we are 4-0? Absolutely. Any time you’ve got an opportunity to go out and get a win, that’s good. Way to go. That stuff is over. It only matters how well we did today."

The Gators of today are leaps and bounds from the yesteryear Gators of Tebow’s era.

But in the wake of Florida’s most thrilling victory in years, and with Ole Miss coming to town, and with a fan base rejuvenated by a perfect September from the Gators, this week has a nostalgic feel to it.

The Gators are showing promise.

"I’m really excited to see what happens in some of these big games that are coming up," said the man responsible for "The Promise."

Tim, you are not alone.