Instant Analysis: Florida 41, Ohio State 14

41-14. It’s a score some people predicted for this game… in Ohio State’s favor. After 60 minutes of play. Instead, the big number belonged to the Florida Gators after just one half of football. Doubted, dismissed and downplayed in the weeks before kickoff, Urban Meyer’s boys dominated, dismantled and destroyed the Buckeyes to claim the second national title in Florida football history.

In the midst of the runaway euphoria and overflowing jubilation, this moment is particularly special for the Gator Nation because this second football crown was claimed in an unexpected and redemptive fashion.

The unexpected part wasn’t just the 34-point first half straight from the football gods. No, as amazing as that first half turned out to be, the Gators’ run to glory was unexpected because this team struggled to beat the Vandys and South Carolinas of the world in the regular season. You could count on the 2006 Florida Gators to persevere, fight, strive, and ultimately win, but you couldn’t rely on this team to deliver a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators won, but rarely with classic artistry. Urban Meyer’s hardened ballclub prevailed on the strength of physical fitness, elbow grease, clutch special teams play, and late-game mental toughness.

It was entirely reasonable to expect Florida to beat an undefeated Ohio State team that breezed through its regular season, but it was not reasonable to think that the Gators’ offense would be virtually untouchable throughout a full half of football. The short passing game that had modest success against SEC opponents became unstoppable and letter-perfect against a stunned and heavy-footed Buckeye defense. Chris Leak pitched it, Percy Harvin usually caught it, and Florida receivers always blocked it. The same simple plays within the same basic framework were repeatedly thrown at Ohio State’s defense, but James Laurinaitis and Company couldn’t do anything about it.

Florida football doesn’t just have any national champion. The Gators can now offer to the world a national championship quarterback in Chris Leak, a national championship play caller in Dan Mullen, a national championship placekicker in Chris Hetland… along with national championship human being Reggie Nelson, who soared and starred in this game (he did; it’s just that his brilliance emerged because you never heard from any OSU receiver all night long) instead of sinking under its emotional weight.

Be honest: the words “national champion” didn’t seem likely to accompany the names of Leak, Mullen or Hetland a few months ago. They didn’t seem likely to appear in the same sentence as the Gators. And had the UCLA Bruins not done their thing on Dec. 2, this team–at 12-1–wouldn’t have even gotten its fair shot. Without enlightened voting from pollsters who had the good sense to deny a rematch between Ohio State and Michigan, the Gators–winners of the SEC–wouldn’t have made it to Glendale for their date with destiny.

Unexpected? That’s being charitable in describing this championship journey for Florida.

But then there’s the even better element of this crowning achievement for the Gators: it stands as a supremely redemptive moment on so many levels.

Leak, the oft-criticized quarterback, now vaults himself into elite all-time status with his performance and victory on a stage this big. A senior class that endured the Ron Zook years ends its college football run in ultimate glory under the masterful work of Meyer, who has done in two years what Steve Spurrier needed seven seasons to achieve. Virtually every Gator–talk about a team victory–is part of a meteoric rise to the college football mountaintop. The story of the 2006 Gator football team is a feel-good story that defies adequate description. The fact that it gives Florida a basketball-football double makes the occasion even more breathlessly spectacular.

As redemptive as those realities in fact are, however, the supremely satisfying element of this national championship (as though a national title could ever represent anything less than the highest emotional high) is that it takes January 2, 1996, and flushes it right down the drain.

Indeed, the Gator Nation’s giddiness on a national title night is rooted not just in the affirmation of the program, or in the second crown that entrenches this school as a football power for all times and seasons. The joy of a Buckeye beatdown goes beyond the fact that the Gators are now more–much more–than a one-trick, one-decade Steve Spurrier pony. No, this unforgettable moment will linger in the hearts of Florida football fans because it eliminated the sting of the Gators’ crushing loss eleven years ago, the last time the Boys of Old Florida fought for a football championship in suburban Phoenix.

There will still be pain whenever the Phoenix suburb of Tempe is mentioned, but this win in Glendale will remove the raw and stabbing nature of that pain. The wound of eleven years ago will always exist, but it’s now a lifeless scar on the body, stripped of its emotional power and historical resonance. Now, the Phoenix area will be a place of triumph in the minds and hearts of Gators everywhere. The Valley of the Sun–which had a very Orange sun the Friday before the game (mixed with a very Blue sliver of sky during a stunning sunset an observer could never forget)–will now be remembered more for the blowout win over Ohio State than for the blowout loss against Nebraska.

The only act of redemption greater than this fully fulfilling Florida finale occurred (for those who believe it) roughly 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, courtesy of the son of a Jewish carpenter.

We all knew Urban Meyer had a knack for doing something special in his second year at a program. Safe to say, this second season–by bringing a second national title to Florida football in its 100th year of competition–surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations.