Instant Analysis: Gators 26, Kentucky 7

In the wake of a sluggish win over Kentucky Saturday night, there are two major stories that Florida Gator fans will talk about. Urban Meyer will take care of the first one; and contrary to what you might think, he won’t have to take care of the second one.

The first huge story comes from Florida’s pancake-flat first half, typified by a rare Reggie Nelson whiff on a fumble recovery attempt, and then a slow, leadfooted response to Kentucky’s David Jones on a seven-yard run in the red zone that should have been a seven-yard loss. When you consider the abundance of team speed the Gators possess, you can’t think that Kentucky’s players are faster; no, that one seven-yard run clearly indicated that Florida was not fully invested in Saturday night’s game… not with a full tank of emotions, and not until a much more impressive second half. It goes without saying that Urban Meyer will let his team know–in no uncertain terms–that that level of emotion, while not fatal against Kentucky, will prove disastrous if shown for any prolonged amount of time in the next five crucial weeks. No need to belabor the point, then.

Ah, but the second story is the story that will generate much more chatter in and around Gainesville in the week to come.

The snapshots, the images of emotion and attitude, were unmisktakable and hard to shake: when Tim Tebow took center stage in the third quarter against the Wildcats, the energy in the stands and the swagger on the field jumped dramatically. Even more importantly, the tempo and rhythm of the Florida huddle picked up, just the way Urban Meyer would like it. And when Tebow stiff-armed Kentucky’s Trevard Lindley so far east that the Wildcat cornerback landed in the Atlantic Ocean, it had seemed as though the ballyhooed recruit–who had drowned in hype for so long, and who played a pivotal role in the win at Tennessee a week earlier–had encountered the first defining and iconic moment of his Florida career. There was no scoreboard significance in that play, and the opponent was Kentucky, not LSU, Auburn or Georgia. But oh, the psychological and symbolic force of that play were off the charts in their magnitude. As fine a man as Chris Leak is–and as much as he himself did in the h uge win in Knoxville the week before–it was impossible for a Gator fan to not think, in that moment, that the next great era of Florida football had begun, with Meyer the coach, and Tim Tebow the quarterback. It was the kind of image–stamped upon the collective memory–that fathers and grandfathers tell the little ones many years after the fact. What Shane Matthews did against Oklahoma State on a September Saturday was the same thing Tim Tebow might have done against Kentucky on another September Saturday in Gainesville, sixteen long years later.

So with all this having been said, the two words that might be tripping lightly and nervously off the liips of Florida partisans right now are “quarterback controversy.” In any big-time program, those two words are hard to eliminate from the mind, especially in light of the old conventional wisdom that two quarterbacks are worse than one.

But as Urban Meyer’s famous predecessor (not the infamous guy who interrupted things for three years before losing big at Illinois) once proved, a two-quarterback shuffle (see the encyclopedia entry titled, “Seminoles, Florida State, November 1997″) does not have to be a death-knell; at Florida, creativity in juggling quarterbacks can be a godsend, and Meyer proved as much against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium.

So while instincts and conventional wisdom suggest controversies, tough decisions, and internal drama for the Gators–particularly at quarterback–the reality is that there’s no decision to be made. With Alabama up next and then the LSU-Auburn Tiger trap, Florida is best served–and given a full range of options (pun not intended)–by having both Leak and Tebow on the field. The starting QB distinction should be largely if not completely irrelevant. It’s all about having the right player on the field for the right defense and the proper down-and-distance situation. Mix and manipulate as needed.

Goodness knows, there are lots of issues to be sorted out after the uneven performance against a Kentucky team that, to give it credit, shows a little more fight and flexes a little more muscle than past Wildcat teams have managed to display. But the quarterback situation–while likely full of talk–is not one of those issues. Tim Tebow provides a lot of swagger, but at the end of the day, Chris Leak is the man who is relied upon to throw big downfield passes, and that responsibility can’t–and shouldn’t–be taken away from him, four games into his senior season.

aa There are some decisions for Urban Meyer in the wake of a game that provided some powerful symbolic images and unforgettable moments fashioned by a freshman wearing No. 15. But the best decision Meyer will make in the coming week is the one he doesn’t make; simply continuing the mix-and-match formula at quarterback is the steady, non-panicky move the Gators need from their head ball coach.