It was supposed to be a coronation. It seems like the entire state of Ohio had transplanted itself to Arizona to witness Ohio State’s crowning as the National Champion. Florida was only the cannon fodder for the game.
The Buckeyes were supposed to be having a rematch with Michigan according to everybody who was supposedly in the know. The Gators got into the game on their strength of schedule and how they played in the SEC title game against Arkansas.
But Ohio State was the story.
Heisman Trophy winner at Quarterback, they were on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption: “The Best: Period.” I thought that was unbelievably arrogant, and clearly the Buckeye nation took that to heart acting in Arizona as if their football team had been transformed into some kind of deity.
“Florida ninety-nine, O-hi-o zip,” Kenneth Tookes of First Coast High and the Gators told me on Friday during media day. Kyle Jackson of Fletcher High said the same thing, laughing it up on camera. “Can you play with these guys?” I asked Jackson off camera. “We’ll be alright if we do our thing. They can’t run with us. They’re like LSU but not as good.”
That was the first hint that the Gators knew something was up. I watched the Ohio State/Michigan game with three friends and came away unimpressed. None of the three are from the South so when I said, “Florida or any other top SEC school would beat either one of those teams,” they thought it was just regional prejudice.
But I really believed it.
I even said “Michigan would be 7-4 if they played in the SEC,” on the air and got plenty of hate mail because of it.
I did flinch when Ted Ginn Jr. took the opening kick back for a touchdown but figured if the Gators could answer right away, they’d get their feet under them. Florida’s opening drive resulted in a touchdown and I told my colleague Tom, “This is the team that gave up 39 points to Michigan. They won’t stop Florida all night.” Tom, a big Gator fan, just smiled. You know that nervous smile that says, “I hope you’re right!”
My seat was in the corner of the end zone looking down on the field like watching coaching tape. I was amazed that Ohio State kept trying to run a zone against Florida’s five wide formations. There was no way they could cover that and if Chris Leak were on, Florida’s skill guys would run wild.
Turns out, Leak was much more than on, he was sharp and made great decisions, taking what the defense was giving and just grinding the ball down field and demoralizing Ohio State. You could see it in their body language. The Buckeyes had rolled through their schedule undefeated and did it the same way every week. But now that what had worked during the regular season wasn’t working; they didn’t have anywhere to go.
They were stunned and in didn’t have a Plan B.
Florida, on the other hand, was just rolling. It seemed that they could do no wrong and their speed was dominating. Troy Smith couldn’t believe that guys like Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss could run him down in the backfield. Nobody in the Big 10 can do that.
The difference is, everybody in the SEC can.
So Florida’s speed advantage wasn’t just at the skill positions, it was all over the field. Defensive linemen were faster than the offensive guys trying to block them, faster than the backs trying to elude them. You did have the sense that the Buckeyes would eventually get something going, but it never materialized. Their fans sat in a stunned silence.
“We were embarrassed,” one told me on the plane. “This will take a while to get over.”
A lot will be made of Urban Meyer winning the National Championship in just his second year but perhaps more should be made of the Gators return to national prominence, probably a year early.
“I’m happy about the National Championship,” Tom told me after the game, “but I’d rather beat Tennessee, Georgia and FSU every year.”
And that’s how it is.
The competition at home is just as, if not fiercer than on the road. Which is why Gators are smiling today.