COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Make no mistake about it, No. 1 Florida’s run to the top is nothing like last year’s.
Florida ran over teams a season ago to win its second national title in three years. This time, the Gators (10-0) are doing it as much on mental toughness as on talent.
They finished off their first perfect, 8-0 Southeastern Conference regular season in 13 years with a 24-14 victory at South Carolina on Saturday.
But almost from the moment Florida celebrated its 2008 championship, the path back was filled with issues and distractions more likely found on soap operas than in locker rooms. “It has been going on since Jan. 9,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
The verbal back-and-forth with new SEC brash boy, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin. Meyer’s $30,000 fine from the SEC. Linebacker Brandon Spikes’ caught-on-tape eye gouge. And then there’s quarterback Tim Tebow, worthy of a spinoff all by himself.
Through it all, Florida’s remained on track for an undefeated season and its third national crown in four years because when things got a little too crazy, Meyer took a step back to fix it.
“After the Tennessee game, I made a conscious decision and my computer has not been turned on,” Meyer said Saturday. “Our players have taken that from our staff. We have our faces pointed in the right direction.”
They weren’t taken down by Kiffin’s pointed jabs at their coach that included a charge Meyer cheated in recruiting Nu’Keese Richardson. Or Spikes’ dirty play. Or even that they haven’t pounded teams like they did a year ago.
“That’s the great thing about winning,” Tebow said with a grin. “The W doesn’t get bigger by how many points you score.”
Tebow knows that better than anyone. He’s dealt with his fair share of distractions and come out with SEC records for most rushing and overall touchdowns.
The big question in January was whether Tebow would return or jump to the NFL draft.
Once back, the focus on Tebow became silly at times. Were his values too good to be true? Was he a virgin? (He took that question at SEC media days this summer.) And, in perhaps the offseason’s most ridiculous whodunit, there was the time every SEC coach was asked if he was the one who hadn’t voted Florida’s QB to the preseason first team.
So it was with knowledge of the long journey traveled this year that when Tebow was asked about hitting the turf hard after he was flipped up on a tackle, he smiled and said, “I’ve been in worse, I know that.”
He has: The quarterback suffered a concussion against Kentucky and his status for the LSU game was the subject of much speculation until he finally started and led the Gators to a 13-3 win.
The Gators looked in one of their worst spots of the season against South Carolina (6-5, 3-5). Down 17-14, quarterback Stephen Garcia had just closed the third quarter with a memorable 4th down pickup that pushed the Gamecocks deep into Florida territory.
Moments later, defensive end Justin Trattou intercepted a pass from Garcia and took it 53 yards in the other direction. Tebow cashed in the touchdown soon after on a 1-yard run, tying the SEC touchdown record of former LSU running back Kevin Faulk.
Just another crisis averted this year by Meyer.
“If my players see me worrying about that, it will be disruptive,” the coach said. “It is easy to worry about things have to fix, but you aren’t going to sit and disrupt your team over it.”
Florida put it all aside and how has the school’s first perfect SEC season since Steve Spurrier’s team did it in 1996 before going on to win the SEC championship game and the national title.
Florida ends with two nonconference games against Florida International and Florida State, then faces Alabama in the SEC championship game in three weeks. If the Gators succeed, it’ll likely be the same way they’ve done it all year long.
Last season, Florida bludgeoned opponents with an offense that didn’t stop. This year, the Gators have had to fight to the end to keep their goals alive.
“We’ve shown a lot of character when we’ve pulled out wins and that’s all you can ask for,” Tebow said. “That’s what makes us excited. We’ve got a team full of character and we just fight to the end.”