Assessing the mythical National Championship
Friday: When Ohio State has the ball.
Saturday: When Florida has the ball.
Sunday: Special teams, mascots and other oddities.
Monday: Hype! And a prediction.
Today: How Florida Can Win.
Establishing the Premises: There is a game. Why is there a game?
Barring a sudden, hugely improbable binge that earns Troy Smith an eleventh hour suspension, Ohio State will saunter into the mythical National Championship Game That Is Definitely Not the Fiesta Bowl Though Still Brought to You Bah Delicious Tostitos favored by a little more than a touchdown. But rhetorically, Florida seems to be generally considered a significantly greater underdog than that line could indicate. The Worldwide Leader, having at least learned its lesson from last year's torrid, ill-fated pre-coronation affair with USC, has momentarily refrained from officially ushering these Buckeyes into its obsessive rotation of fantasy contests among vague conceptual constructions of mythical champions past, and only hinted at OSU's grand historical context in passing. But Ohio State, clearly, is the best team in the country: Kirk Herbstreit knows it, everyone at CBS Sportsline knows it, AccuScore knows it, Tradesports knows it, The Onion knows it, Bullpen Al knows it.
They also know, of course, that upsets happen - Boise State, UCLA, Kansas State, Ohio State in the `02 Fiesta Bowl, etc. - that that's why they play da games, and any team in the same general class as its opponent is capable of winning. But SMQ's not proceeding here on "shock the world;" what evidence exists for non-Gators with no psychological incentive to expect Florida victory to suppose UF will be a solid straight-up bet - say, a 52-48, John Kerry in 2004 wager, rather than the landslide, Nixon in `72 bet AccuScore's simulations (in favor of Ohio State in 75 percent of 10,000 different runs based on season-long data) assure us the MNCGTISDNTFBTSBTYBDT will in fact be - to coax a Florida-friendly forecast? If any exist, this is it:
Urban Meyer: Initially, SMQ had `Chris Leak' here, but really, Leak hasn't improved much since he threw 29 touchdown passes his sophomore season; if anything, he was better in his first season in Meyer's system, when he had only two fewer touchdowns than this season (in one fewer game) but less than half the interceptions (13 to 6). Yet all trends are up: from three straight five-loss seasons under Ron Zook to a 9-3 mark and a January bowl win in Meyer's first season and now an SEC Championship and mythical title appearance in his second. If that trajectory sounds familiar, it's the same as Meyer's relative turnarounds at Bowling Green and Utah and, yes, Jim Tressel's work at Ohio State, whose second team, following a 7-5 debut, won a share of the Big Ten and stunned heavily favored Miami for the 2002 championship.
Beyond the neat but coincidental historicism, Meyer has shown tremendous flexibility and guts in personnel, formation and play calling, scrapping the option to fit Leak's strengths and weaknesses, prominently incorporating eight or nine capable playmakers in the offense, finding inventive ways to maintain a consistent running game with a great line or backs, putting talented freshman in tailor-made mini-roles to succeed immediately and keeping defenses in a state of perpetual vigilance in his use of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin as well as general insanity along the lines of the fake punt on 4th-and-11 from his own 17 in the SEC Championship, which did not result in a subsequent first down when the offense reemerged but siphoned some momentum from Arkansas and set up the tide-turning punt/fumble by Reggie Fish [Yeah, credit the opposing coach for that - ed. Doesn't happen without the fake is all I'm sayin'...]. Meyer - again, like Tressel - has won big on lower levels and can put his stamp on the profession by upsetting a perceived powerhouse with a scrappy, mostly faceless group that lacks a coherent identity and may or may not belong on the field Monday.
So far, so good.
The Kids: In this case, Harvin and Tebow, who together constituted Florida's running game by the SEC Championship. Tebow's role as short-yardage bludgeon has been publicized to dramatic excess, but it's been equally effective: Florida's been remarkably consistent running the ball for a team that only gives the ball to its actual running backs about 14 times per game (less if the defense is fairly feisty), and it's better on third and short than any other situation, converting 17 of 23 runs on third and 1-3 yards to go and averaging almost six yards per carry in the process (Ohio State, by comparison, has converted 24 of 37 runs in the same situation). Virtually all of which is Tebow, who has run roughshod over left guard with little resistance at any point despite the brutal obviousness of his presence; he did it against Tennessee (7 for 29 yards), against Alabama (9 for 28, one touchdown), against LSU (9 for 35, two passing touchdowns off run action), against Auburn (3 for 18, one touchdown), against Georgia (6 for 36), against South Carolina (5 for 29, one touchdown) and against Arkansas (8 for 31), none of whom were the least bit surprised but all of whom in the end were helpless against the primal will of the Tebow Effect. Every first down he can muster against OSU is, if nothing else, another minute and a half or two Troy Smith doesn't touch the ball.
Teammates learned to stop worrying and love the Tebow Effect
The novelty of Tebow hottness wore off as it became par for the course, just as the star of another freshman novelty - one whose success is more explicable - was rising as a regular feature late in the season. Percy Harvin spent most of his first year alternately running stray reverses, catching shallow crossing routes and injured, but halfway through the season, beginning with a 5-carry, 66-yard night at Auburn, he became a reliable ball carrier, running 27 times in five of the Gators' last seven games for more than 300 yards and breaking off long touchdown runs on counters from the running back position against Florida State and Arkansas. The schemes are nothing at all alike, but if Florida's line can open the same holes Michigan's did for Mike Hart's 142-yard afternoon, Harvin shouldn't need more than half a dozen tries to reward their efforts.
LSU: If any specific one of their victories should hearten the Gators now that the rest of the SEC has completed its season, this has to be the one in light of the Tigers' overwhelming finale Wednesday. JaMarcus Russell may have turned himself into a first-round pick in April, but in October, Florida picked him off three times, one of seven multi-pick games by the Gator defense - other victims included Erik Ainge and whoever was throwing on any of the three particular plays in question for Arkansas. On the `quality win' scale, though, holding LSU under a third of season scoring average is the defensive triumph that only looks better and better in retrospect.
Michigan: Which brings us back to the land of hope for Florida's offense, which has in front of it what no other attack coming at OSU had in the precedent of the Wolverines' overall success. As different as the two schemes are and as different as Ohio State's defense is likely to look in response to the Gators' spread Monday, UF and Michigan do share the presence of a collection of good receivers and a passing game that begins with the run and play-action to distribute the ball among that cadre. The Wolverines missed a few opportunities in man coverage the Gators cannot afford to miss.
Psychologically, for what its worth, Ohio State's blitzkrieg on the previously impenetrable Michigan D is less impressive since being replicated by USC, however similarly talented the Trojans. Michigan's secondary had no slip `n slide turf to account for its Rose Bowl woes; it was just bad, and in likelihood may have been somewhat hidden all season by the dominance of the Wolverines' front seven in terms of pressuring quarterbacks into awful decisions and making offenses one-dimensional, which Ohio State never was. Florida's secondary is no deeper than Michigan's, but it is more aggressive, makes more big plays (UF has 20 interceptions as a team) and allows fewer. Perpetuator of fear Reggie Nelson can cover more ground, and will be asked to, than Michigan's safeties, who had a rough, rough day in Columbus, and again in the Rose.
This Reggie Nelson...does he know something the rest of us don't?
The Defense: It's, uh, good. But so was Michigan's, for all the difference it made. More tomorrow on the crucial matchup when OSU has the ball.