The last time I visited Atlanta my wife, a couple of our friends and myself were sitting in Gladys Knight’s and Ron’s Chicken and Waffles restaurant the night before the 2009 SEC Championship game and I wasn’t feeling too well. Not because of the food, it’s one of the best eats in the city, but I really had a bad feeling about the game the next day.
Florida was coming into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation, riding a 22-game winning streak and was about to face the Alabama Crimson Tide in a rematch from the previous year’s championship game. In 2008 Tebow and the Gators, minus Percy Harvin, ripped the hearts out of the Crimson Tide on their way to the national championship.
In 2009 Alabama was on a mission to return the favor to the Gators and they did so in more ways than one. Alabama went on to win that game 32-13 on their way to the national championship, but for Florida it turned out to be a different story for the next five years. Alabama would go on to win three of the next four national titles while Florida would endure a time of hardship, seeing Urban Meyer resign and hire Will Muschamp as the successor and, well, you know the rest of the story. Not trying to bring up bad memories, but it goes to show how fickle college football and success can be.
Five years and two coaches later, the Gators make their return back to the Georgia Dome to play the Alabama Crimson Tide, who are once again in position to play for the national title. This will be the Gators 11th appearance and the Tide’s 10th. This will be the eighth meeting in the SEC Championship game. In 1992, 1996, 2008 and 2009 the winner has gone on to win the national championship. That could very well happen this year if the Crimson Tide win, as most expect them to. Alabama is currently a 17-point favorite.
Just over a month ago, Gator Nation was on a high. They were coming off a 27-3 beat down of the Georgia Bulldogs and were one game away from winning the SEC East. Since the beginning of November there has been a sharp decline in the overall performance of the team. Two-thirds have been downright embarrassing, while the defense is doing all they can to keep the team above water.
In 2009 Florida entered the game in somewhat of an underwhelming fashion. They were undefeated but it felt like they were underachieving. The eventual loss was disappointing but somewhat relieving. That Saturday was the first and only time I left a game early. Who would have thought that when I checked out, others would check out too? The next morning reports about Meyer stepping down and then coming back arose and as fast as the Florida football program rose back to prominence under Meyer, it feel just as fast and it fell hard.
As Florida fans we have been eagerly waiting for another shot at an SEC Championship since that dreadful, cold and dreary night in Atlanta. After that game, the cold was colder, the hurt was more painful and the upcoming future would unknowingly become five years of frustration. I have too much pride to give any credit to Alabama for the fall that Florida took, but they could serve as a reminder point for what Florida is fighting to get out of. For the Gators, this game versus Alabama has served as a program changer or catalyst to something special or dreadful.
I remember walking back to my hotel room and seeing my wife and new born child in the room and the look on her face, was that of empathy. When I sat down to look at the TV and remainder of the game I remember seeing Tebow kneeling down on the sideline and in the post game interview shedding tears. All I could do is put my face in my hands and think about the next year and the beginning of the John Brantley era. That didn’t work out so well, but I digress.
The odds say that Florida will not win on Saturday, there is potential they could absolutely get demolished and be the fly to Alabama’s swatter. But something in me says, if that was to occur, Florida can still find growth points. Everything about this week is different. These young Gators will experience a championship game atmosphere, championship game media and a championship program. They will learn quickly what it takes to win championships. For a team that has learned how to win in some very precarious situations, this game will do so much for the nearing future of the program.
While we remember 2009 as somewhat the beginning of the end of an era, we can see 2015 as the beginning of an era. One day we can hopefully look back at this weekend, win or lose and see that the accomplishment of this year’s team was unexpected, not without challenges, but fulfilling. Six years ago, I felt like a piece of me was gone, the cup half empty feeling. This time around, I see the cup half full with some very pleasant memories to come.