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Prelude to a Season: #1

1.) Florida Gators

FloridaWhat You Need to Know
Last year, OTP took a beating by those “in the know” when we called for Florida to go undefeated and lift a BCS title come January. Granted, we missed out on the undefeated part, but we had the title part accurate. Hey… no one’s perfect. We weren’t drinking the Georgia KoolAid, we weren’t star struck by the Trojan mystique, and we weren’t blinded by the Buckeye name. We went with the Gators and the Gators went and proved us right.

This season, Urban Meyer and Florida has every possible component for another BCS Championship. Athletic playmakers, a roster full of returning starters, one of the best coaches in the game, and a returning Heisman Trophy winner all leave the Gators sitting pretty and sitting in the catbird seat of the nation’s most prestigious conference.

Last season was magical in almost every respect, as the Gators beat rivals, won a BCS Bowl Game, and used a one point defeat at the hands of Ole Miss as fuel for their run of 10 straight victories and a national title. That one loss may carry benefits to 2009 as well, as the Gators have never finished a season undefeated in school history, which gives a team without many brass rings left to reach for something to try and grasp. Great for the Gators, potentially terrible news for the 12 teams on the Gators’ schedule.

Offensively, the Gators lose 4 of 2008’s starters (two offensive linemen and two wide receivers) but it is more about the 7 who are returning. Specifically, all the headlines seem to be about 1 of those 7, senior QB Tim Tebow. Tebow returns to Florida with virtually nothing left to prove, just another year to cement his legacy and distance himself from those who have went before and those who will come after. Two national titles, a Heisman trophy, and more celebrity and notoriety than many NFL players possess could have left Tebow anything but hungry. However, #15 continues to dominate opponents, PR landmines, and odd questions at SEC Media Day after leading a unit last season that averaged 43.6 points and 445 yards per game. The players that surround Tebow in the backfield are dominant, fast, and capable at any time of breaking a highlight run. Junior Emmanuel Moody, sophomore Jeffery Demps, and sophomore Chris Rainey all return. The receiving corps and the rushing attack both took a hit when Percy Harvin transitioned to the NFL, along with Louis Murphy, 2008’s top two threats. The receiving unit also lost TE Cornelius Ingram. Filling those losses will largely fall to returning players like senior Riley Cooper or sophomore Deonte Thompson. Senior David Nelson also is an imposing threat at 6’5″. The offensive line lost valuable contributors as well, LT Phil Trautwein and RT Jason Watkins. The losses for any other team would cause reason for concern, but Florida is Florida, and the two deep is loaded with players just waiting for their opportunity to put their remarkable talent on display.

Defensively, the 2008 Gators were simply dominating, giving up only 12.9 points per game along with 285 total yards. The bad news for anyone on Florida’s schedule is all 11 starters return. With a year of experience. That’s bad news for anyone not wearing blue and orange. The defensive line is anchored by two 2nd Team All SEC selections in junior DE Carlos Dunlap and senior DE Jermaine Cunningham, who combined for 15.5 sacks last year. The linebacking unit is paced by 1st Team All American Brandon Spikes, who led the 08 Gators in tackles and also had 4 INTs. The secondary is led by 2nd Team All SEC junior SS Ahmad Black who picked off 7 passes and was the 4th leading tackler on the defense. Perhaps the scariest thing is that only three starters this season are seniors, meaning this sort of dominance may very well continue into the foreseeable future.

Florida is not only in possession of a remarkably dominant defense and an offense led by one of the greatest collegiate players in recent memory, they also have a head coach who has to be in the discussion of best coaches in the game. Urban Meyer is entering his 5th year at Florida, and while certainly his most successful stop, it wasn’t the beginning of that success. Previous stops at both Bowling Green and Utah laid a foundation for Meyer’s philosophy, approach, and talent. At Florida, Meyer has won 2 national titles with the Gators, and led the Utes to the BCS. At 83-17 overall, Meyer clearly is a winner, and may be able to add another bullet point to that resume this year… the coach who led Florida to an undefeated season.

The Gators schedule out of conference is far from challenging, as they host Charleston Southern, Troy, FIU, and Florida State. Three easy wins along with one probable win, all at home, make for a perfect run through their out of conference schedule. In the SEC, Florida’s 3 home games are Tennessee, Arkansas, and Vandy. They have a neutral site game against the Georgia Bulldogs, along with road contests at Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss do not appear.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Tim Tebow: 192-298, 2746 yds, 30 TDs, 4 INTs, 176 att, 673 yds, 12 TDs
LB Brandon Spikes: 93 tkls, 2 sacks, 6 TFL, 4 INTs
DE Carlos Dunlap: 39 tkls, 9.5 sacks, 4 TFL

Game to Watch
Selfishly as someone who follows the Kentucky Wildcats and considers Tennessee to be one of our biggest rivals and most hated teams, I have the September 19th Florida-Tennessee game highlighted to watch for the potential fireworks and payback for a mouthy offseason from Lane Kiffin. For the Gators’ title hopes, the biggest roadblocks are their Halloween showdown against Georgia, and their October 10th contest at LSU. Florida has lost to an SEC West team every year since 1999, and LSU stands the greatest shot of continuing that streak.

They’ll Do Well If…
… they stay healthy. The talent level is high, the coaching is impeccable, and the support from the fans unmatched. The only team stopping Florida this year is Florida, either by silly unforced errors or bad luck/fluke injuries.

Season Outlook
For the Gators, 2009 looks to be another reason to celebrate. LSU and Georgia will be close games and the former may be one for the ages, but both those will be wins for the Gators. They’ll take a sparkling 12-0 record into the SEC title game, where they’ll face Ole Miss. After a victory, the Gators will haul a 13-0 record to the BCS title game, and Urban Meyer and Tebow will add another impressive bullet on their lengthy resume… an undefeated season and a third national title, scientifically proving that the only key to winning a title is having OTP rank you #1 in the preseason.

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