The Florida Gators clinched their first trip to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship since their last Championship in 2000. Head Coach Urban Meyer and Company made it all the way to Gainesville from their game against Vanderbilt before finding out the news they were waiting on. Sunday, Meyer talked about that and the mindset of the team and staff heading into a big game with South Carolina.
The Gators actually landed at the airport just as the LSU scored the go ahead touchdown against Tennessee. The Volunteer loss meant that the Gators were guaranteed a trip to Atlanta to compete for the SEC title. According to Meyer it was a good time to be a Gator.
“Like you would have hoped, expected, and dreamed,” Meyer said when asked about the atmosphere on the plane and with the players and staff. “The wheels hit the ground and everyone had their phones trying to get them to work. They didn’t really get (the score) until we landed, it was pandemonium on that jet.”
The pressure of getting to Atlanta is now off and Meyer admits that there certainly was a bit more than he had hoped for.
“I hate to say this because it doesn’t sound real professional, but it was almost a relief,” he said. “We wanted it so bad. (Players) come to Florida to go do that. You don’t come here for the palm trees and that stuff, you come to get an education and go to Atlanta. Thank God for these seniors to get out of here with the opportunity to do that. I have never been there but I hear it s a great atmosphere to be in.”
With the relief of knowing they are already in the Championship game comes a new focus on goals and getting the team up for every game. Meyer understands that he is dealing with the mindset of young people and that the impressionable youth have a tendency to sway from the path that the team would like to be headed for.
“Worried about a let down? Absolutely, you are darn right,” Meyer said about the possibility. “First of all you are dealing with 18-21 year olds. That will be addressed and beaten to death on Monday.
“Coach (Mickey) Marotti is my confidant, he is my strength coach. We meet every week and discuss (a theme) every week. I used to undervalue that. Once again we are dealing with (young) people so there has to be a theme and a plan of attack. If it is just another game, the guys won’t play very hard.
“I worry about that, I worry about a lot of things I guess. I am worried about a let down. It’s what is out there and dealing with the youth. Common sense says there will be no let down, but how many people live by common sense.”
One motivation could be a chance to solidify their spot and maybe make a move in the BCS standings. As of this writing the Gators were ranked fourth in the BSC standings which are used to determine who will play for the national title. With top ranked Ohio State still having to play second ranked Michigan, and third ranked West Virginia already losing, the Gators are not far off from making a big step.
Since clinching the shot at the SEC title, Meyer says the BCS talk is now a little more valid.
“It certainly wouldn’t be discussed if Tennessee had won that game last night,” he said. “We just take steps.”
How much it gets discussed is something different all together. Meyer will send some time this week with the right people and figure out what kind of buttons to push for the remainder of the season.
“We have not made that decision and I am certainly not making that decision by myself,” Meyer said about what kind of visual and verbal motivation he will have for the team this week. “Our weight coaches spend more time with these players than anyone. We won’t keep it a secret, I will let you guys know what the M.O. is this week.”
South Carolina pulled off the upset at home last year on the Gators. It was truly a game that Meyer would like to have back, but he says situations have changed dramatically in one year.
“First of all we were not a good team last year at this time,” he said. “We were bordering on being a bad team with the issues that were going on. I think it is a different team.”
Of course with South Carolina coming in to the Swamp, one of the big topics of conversation will be the return of Steve Spurrier to his old hunting grounds. The South Carolina head coach is of course the most successful head coach in the University of Florida’s history. His aura still looms over Gainesville and the inevitable comparisons to whoever coaches the Gators will always be there.
“It’s a little bit of a burden,” Meyer said about trying to live up to the standard set by Spurrier. “I’m sure that not many coaches would admit that. What makes it even harder is that he is playing in the conference. The one thing we have done is embrace it.
“Our relationship is very good. Every time we are at a function we sit down and talk. Our wives get along great. Coach Spurrier’s wife has been very hospitable and gracious. She knows Gainesville and what (wife) Shelley deals with, so the relationship has been very good.”
Meyer and his staff are very cognizant of what has been done in the past in Gainesville and recognize the past as something that is important for his team, his staff, and for future gators. He understands the significance of Spurrier’s return.
“I think it is a great story line and it’s the truth,” Meyer said. “I think this staff more than any has embraced the history of Florida football. This staff wouldn’t be here without the great tradition. We decided to come here because of that tradition. We wanted to be a part of that tradition.”
Spurrier will bring with him a potentially lethal offense. Meyer believes that the skill positions at South Carolina are something to really be respected.
“I think we are facing the best wide receivers in the conference,” Meyer said. “I heard South Carolina is down in talent and I don’t know why they are saying that. I watched every snap of the game last night and a lot of film and they are a very talented team. Especially the receiving crew and we are giving up some passing yards.”
The fourth quarter against Vanderbilt saw the Gators’ defense give up 165 yards and 13 points. The defense was dominant the rest of the day, so that was something to be concerned with.
“That is very alarming, but we will be ok,” Meyer said. “We will have a great week of practice and that’s what our defensive coaches get paid to do. They have been fairly successful. I have confidence in our personnel. How does Ryan Smith match up against someone (like Sidney Rice) that fast and that big? I don’t know. Those are match ups that we have to get figured out this week.”
With all the excitement in the air this week, Meyer and his staff anticipate a great game day atmosphere. The staff has decided to make this the hallmark game for recruits to come and visit and this will likely be the best turnout for big time prospects for the entire season. With all the other stuff going on, Meyer and company will try to capitalize on all of it.
“One thing we are going to sell recruits is that the Gators are going to Atlanta, he said. “They will be getting it on text messages this morning, ‘The Gators are going to Atlanta’, for the first time in six years.
“The other thing is playing in this great stadium. I anticipate with Coach Spurrier coming here, with us being the SEC East Champs playing in the game, and our chances in the BCS, I know with our student body it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
To complete the atmosphere and win the game, Meyer will need one of his most important players to step up and play like he is capable of. As of late, starting senior quarterback Chris Leak has been struggling. He has thrown six interceptions in three games and Meyer believes he is pressing trying to make things happen that aren’t there.
“Very average,” Meyer said about Leak’s play. “I would assess the fact that he has taken this team to the SEC Championship game is a plus, but I think he has to play much better to achieve any other goals.
“The way I see Chris Leak is that he has been walking around with a 500 pound weight on his back. I think he is making throws trying to make something happen. We have been over matched on the offensive line and he is getting pressured and getting rid of the ball early. I am hoping now that he will relax and play his best football in the last three games.”
The numbers of injuries are high for the Gators this week, but it appears there are no serious injuries coming off of the game with Vanderbilt. Meyer expects a few to miss some practice time, but everyone that played against Vanderbilt to suit up and play at home on Saturday.
“We are going to have eight or nine guys in boots this week,” Meyer said. “We put guys in a boot around here if they have a sprained ankle. For some reason we have been very fortunate to make it through these games so far and still have a couple left without major injuries rather than miss games. Drew Miller, Jim Tartt, Percy Harvin, Brandon James, and Bubba Caldwell are guys off the top of my head that will be in a boot today. From what I understand there isn’t one that will miss a game, but they will miss some practice time.”