GAINESVILLE, Fla. — College football’s defending national champions have nine new starters on defense. They have a new starting quarterback, new tailback and two new starting offensive linemen.
By Mark Schlabach
In his first SEC start, Tim Tebow threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more.
And by the end of the season, Florida might be better than it was a year ago, when it finished the season by annihilating Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS National Championship Game.
After the Gators lost 18 players who were either drafted or signed as free agents by NFL teams, they were supposed to take a step back before making another giant leap forward. How do you lose three starting defensive linemen, each of the three starting linebackers and three defensive backs and still remain ultrasuccessful?
Well, that old saying “You better get them this year …”—forget about it. The Gators are already better on offense because they have a more talented quarterback and what seems like an endless supply of offensive weapons. And if the defense grows up in a hurry, Florida might even have a shot at defending its SEC championship, maybe even its national title.
The fifth-ranked Gators grew up in a hurry Saturday, dismantling No. 22 Tennessee 59-20 in front of a sold-out crowd of 90,707 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators dominated the Volunteers in every facet of the game. Quarterback Tim Tebow threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more in his first SEC start. Running back Brandon James ran back the Volunteers’ first punt 83 yards for a touchdown, and linebacker Dustin Doe returned an interception 18 yards for a backbreaking score.
“I didn’t see this one at all,” said Urban Meyer, who is 9-3 against ranked teams as Florida’s coach. “I didn’t see it coming until the whistle at the end, when I said, ‘My goodness.’”
That’s probably also what 10 other SEC coaches said when they saw the score of the Gators’ lopsided victory. Florida wasn’t supposed to be this good this fast. The Gators have only 10 seniors and 11 juniors. They’ve played 27 freshmen in their first three games. More than 70 percent of Florida’s roster is composed of freshmen and sophomores.
But many of those young players are also very, very talented. Tebow, who did little more than ram his head into the pile and run while backing up Chris Leak last season, was nearly perfect in his biggest test to date. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 61 yards and two scores and wasn’t sacked. His only blemish was a third-quarter interception that cornerback Eric Berry returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
Meyer blamed his team’s only turnover on receiver Riley Cooper, who ran the wrong route on a third-down play.
“That was a major error,” Meyer said. “Tim threw that right on the dot.”
Most of Tebow’s other throws were right on the money, too. He threw a 30-yard touchdown to Cooper to make it 14-3 in the first quarter. Near the end of the first half, Tebow fired a 20-yard touchdown to Cornelius Ingram when the Vols busted their coverage. Even when the Gators were backed up to their end zone, Tebow dropped back on first down and lofted a 49-yard pass to sophomore Percy Harvin down the middle of the field.
Tebow threw the football underhanded and side-armed. He shoveled the ball and even threw a first-down pass to tailback Kestahn Moore while falling down.
“He’s crossing bridges as he comes to them,” Meyer said of his left-handed quarterback. “The thing we’ve got to understand is he’s got a long way to go. He’s getting there quickly, but it’s only the third game.”
The gap between the Gators and Volunteers seems wider than ever. Tennessee ran for only 37 yards on 21 attempts. Even after the Volunteers cut Florida’s lead to 28-20 on Berry’s long interception return in the third quarter, things quickly got out of hand. After the Vols defense forced the Gators to punt, running back Arian Foster bobbled Ainge’s handoff and fumbled. Doe scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown and a 35-20 lead. The rout was on.
It is the first time Florida has scored 38 or more points in five straight games since 1996, when Steve Spurrier led the Gators to their first national championship. And Meyer is beginning to coach a lot like Spurrier did. After taking a 15-point lead late in the third quarter, Meyer had Tebow keep throwing. The Gators scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to make the margin of victory even more ugly.
The 39-point loss was Tennessee’s worst defeat in Phillip Fulmer’s 16-year tenure as coach of his alma mater, and the Volunteers’ worst since a 44-0 loss against Georgia to open the 1981 season.
“No one feels sorry for us, nor do we feel sorry for ourselves,” said Fulmer, whose teams are only 15-12 since the start of the 2005 season. “We’ve got to really look at it and look at ourselves first. Certainly, I take responsibility for this. We’ve got to look at our coaches, look at our players, our leadership and go back to work. It’s one game in the SEC season. A lot can happen.”
Florida might be capable of even more. The Gators played without senior receiver Andre Caldwell, who missed the game because of a sprained knee ligament. Starting right guard Maurkice Pouncey left with a leg injury, and cornerback Markihe Anderson sprained his knee in the first quarter.
“When we get [Caldwell] back, we’re going to get everybody into rhythm and we’ll really open it up,” Harvin said.
It seems as though Harvin already has the pedal to the floor. He caught four passes for 120 yards and ran nine times for 75 yards. The sophomore from Virginia Beach, Va., was hampered by tendinitis in his Achilles tendon and right knee in the Gators’ first two games.
“I think you witnessed one of the best players in college football in Percy Harvin,” Meyer said. “A coach doesn’t find one like that all the time.”
But Meyer apparently found a few of them. James had 91 yards in punt returns and 102 yards in kickoff returns and ran for 13 yards. The trio of Harvin, James and Tebow accounted for 641 all-purpose yards. The Gators had 554 yards of offense and averaged 8.5 yards per play. With 299 passing yards and 61 rushing, Tebow outgained the entire Tennessee team.
Now the Gators have to become just as good on defense, and Saturday’s effort was certainly a start. But the road gets tougher. Florida has its first road game at Ole Miss on Saturday and plays at No. 2 LSU on Oct. 6.
Meyer says he’ll be taking a different team on the road.
“Confidence is an overused word,” he said. “You can say you’re confident, but if you’ve never done it before, how can you be confident? That’s a much different-looking team in that locker room than it was a few weeks ago. You can see the whiskers starting to form on some of those young faces. You can see them growing up before your eyes.”
And the Gators are growing up in a hurry.
“I think we sent a message to a lot of people across the country,” said safety Tony Joiner, one of only two starters back on defense. “All that ‘young’ talk, you can throw it out the window.”
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men’s college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.