No. 1 Gators staying focused despite distractions
The top-ranked Gators have stayed unbeaten through them all, maybe the most impressive aspect of the team's 19-game winning streak.
"It's been the year of stuff," coach Urban Meyer said. "What does stuff do to bad families? It rips them apart. Bad teams? It rips them apart. What's it do to solid teams and solid families? It gets them a little closer. I'm proud to say this is a very solid family, a very solid team."
The bond certainly has been tested in 2009, and it will be again before the defending national champions play No. 3 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game next month.
Florida (9-0, 7-0 SEC) faces former coach Steve Spurrier on Saturday in South Carolina, then two weeks later, has the final home game for seniors looking to win three national titles in four years. The finale also has the potential to be Florida State coach Bobby Bowden's last game.
The Gators are confident none of it will affect them.
"When you're very, very successful, which we have been, you're always looking for another challenge out there and something that we can feed off of and motivate our team," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "It's not phony. There's real substance to everything Urban puts in front of this team. Real substance to the motivation and the goals and the things we have to do to win.
"There's going to be highs and lows, there will be some mountains, some valleys along the way, and there's going to be some real tough things. But if we keep staying on course ... we're going to be fine."
McCarney said this team feeds off drama, and the Gators have dealt with enough the last three months to fill a daytime soap opera.
It started on the first day of fall practice, when Spikes, Tim Tebow and several teammates proclaimed their goal was to be the first undefeated team in school history. That was news to Meyer, who quickly tried to put an end to that kind of talk.
That turned out to be the least of his issues.
The Gators relived Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin's offseason recruiting allegations and his promise to win in Gainesville. They dealt with flulike symptoms that kept dozens of players out of practice and forced some to fly separately to Kentucky.
There was Tebow's highly publicized concussion and the would-he-or-would-he-not-play cliffhanger going into the biggest game of the season at LSU. There was Spikes missing most of two games with injuries.
There was the game against former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, and Tebow's bailing out on postgame interviews after a sub-par performance against Mullen's Mississippi State team.
There were questionable calls against Arkansas and Mississippi State that prompted conspiracy theories about SEC officials favoring the league's top teams.
There was the heated rivalry against Georgia, which included pregame talk about Florida's timeouts and Georgia's end-zone celebration, and plenty of emotion that carried onto the field and caused issues the following week.
Spikes' eye-gouging incident became a huge deal when video of it spread via the Internet. Meyer suspended Spikes for the first half against Vanderbilt, then increased it to a full game two days later - after Spikes said he didn't want to be a distraction.
Meyer, meanwhile, said officials missed a late hit on Tebow. The SEC fined the coach $30,000, making him the first to be penalized under the league's stricter rules regarding criticizing officials.
"Everybody plays better with a chip on their shoulder," guard Mike Pouncey said. "All that stuff gives us a little edge for every game."
The Gators have won every game since Tebow's famous speech in September 2008 after a loss to Mississippi, but Meyer felt he needed to remind players to have fun following a few wins this season. The Gators' have sputtered on offense and haven't been quite as dominant as expected for a team that was an overwhelming pick to repeat as national champs.
"All the things that we've gone through make us the team that we are," Tebow said. "Without that, I don't think we'd be as close, I don't think we'd be as determined, I don't think we'd be as passionate about it. All those things, yes they are hard. Why did you have to go through them? Why isn't it easy? Without the bad times, the good times wouldn't be as special.
"If everything came easy, then you wouldn't have to depend on one another. But when times are tough, you have to lean on your brother more, and that makes you closer as a team."