LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Florida Gators were off last week, which gave coach Urban Meyer the chance to watch Kentucky shock LSU on television.
By Pat Forde
When the game was over, Meyer commenced punching buttons on his cell phone.
“I started calling guys that night,” he said. “Calling players. I wanted to make sure they’re living right, and that they understood the opportunities in front of them.”
Among those opportunities: an SEC title, maybe even a back-back-backdoor run at a national title.
“He was jacked up,” quarterback Tim Tebow said.
It might sound crazy for the coach of a team that was, at the time, 4-2 overall and 2-2 in conference play to talk like that. But, hey, craziness defines this college football season. One week and another spasm of upheaval later, Florida’s hopes remain alive.
The Gators are part of a preposterous pileup atop the SEC East—and if the nationwide epidemic of upset losses continues, two-loss Florida would love a shot at a title defense.
Stranger things have not happened, at least not since 1960. That’s the last time a two-loss team claimed any share of a national title, when Minnesota was crowned No. 1 by the AP before the bowl games were played—then the Gophers were beaten by Washington in the Rose Bowl.
That also was the only other time Notre Dame started a season 1-7. So we could officially be in the midst of the weirdest season in 47 years.
And in no place is it weirder than the Bloody South. All the SEC’s unbeatens were cleared out by nightfall on Oct. 13. By nightfall on Oct. 20, two of the league’s last three one-loss teams had been whacked.
Vanderbilt upset South Carolina 17-6 in Columbia. You read that right: The Commodores, who never had beaten a Steve Spurrier team, held the HBC to six points. Then Florida outscored Kentucky 45-37 in Lexington, with Tebow out-Heisman-ing Andre’ Woodson in a splendid quarterbacking duel.
Throw in Alabama mugging Tennessee after suspending five players, and you have the Karl Marx dream standings in the Eastern Division. Everyone is equal, or nearly so.
Vandy is the only team not tied for first in the loss column. And at 2-3, it is only one game back.
“I’ve never seen anything like what goes on in this league,” Meyer marveled.
The bigger question is whether what goes on in this league is good for this league. The SEC’s national championship hopes could experience death by parity.
The same thing was said last year, of course, when it was proved emphatically that a one-loss SEC champion was better than an undefeated Big Ten champ. So perhaps, if we wind up without an unbeaten team anywhere to be found, the league can lobby for a two-loss SEC team being better than a one-loss team from anywhere else.
But at this rate, the SEC could even be looking at a three-loss champion.
Still, you couldn’t find anyone in Commonwealth Stadium arguing that this is a bad thing.
“There isn’t too much parity,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. “That’s what makes it so competitive. Kentucky’s success is a great example: It puts to rest the old chestnut that you can’t be competitive in more than one sport.
“When you think about getting to Atlanta, the parity is terrific.”
True. But in this league, they don’t just dream of getting to Atlanta. They dream of getting to New Orleans on Jan. 7.
Perhaps the league is better off doing what Meyer is doing: narrowing the focus to the next game and simply enjoying (or enduring) the wild ride.
“We’re playing Georgia in Jacksonville,” Meyer said, resolutely not going there when asked about the big picture. “There’s so much football to be played in the Southeastern Conference. I think it’s great for college football. So much parity, it’s so fun to watch.”
No more fun to watch than Meyer’s quarterback.
I had Tebow atop my Heisman poll last week, and there’s absolutely no reason to change that after this performance. The indomitable sophomore had the ball on 46 of Florida’s 63 offensive plays, running it 20 hard-edged times and throwing it 26 more. He piled up 334 yards of total offense and accounted for five touchdowns, four throwing and one running.
Tebow has accounted for 27 TDs in seven games, more than the past six quarterbacks to win the Heisman through the same point in the season. (If you’re scoring at home that’s Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer, Jason White, Matt Leinart and Troy Smith.) Even in this era of multitasking spread-offense quarterbacks, it’s hard to find one doing more than Tebow does—or taking on more tacklers in the process.
“He’s as competitive a human being as I’ve ever been around,” Meyer said.
Watching Tebow and Woodson operate is an opportunity to watch two totally different guys excel at the same position.
Woodson is all poise and precision in the pocket. His 415 passing yards and five touchdowns, in the face of a prodigious pass rush, were impressive.
Tebow was even more impressive. He’s all blood and guts, running over tacklers and running away from tacklers and making throws from all angles.
“He almost wills things to happen out there,” offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. “They have him in the pocket, and he just stays alive.”
And, at game’s end, he killed Kentucky.
After a poor Wildcats kickoff was returned to near midfield by the Gators’ Brandon James, you figured Florida would try to run out the clock nursing a seven-point lead. Instead, Meyer told Mullen on the headset, “Let’s take a shot here.”
On first down, Tebow play-faked and looked deep, only to find the coverage in place. So he dumped to the outside to Kestahn Moore for 9 yards. Three plays later, the Gators went for the big play again, and Tebow rifled a 40-yard strike to Percy Harvin. Tebow plowed in from the 2 to put the game away.
“Our game plan against him was good,” Wildcats defensive end Dominic Lewis said. “We had guys in the right spots. He just made better plays.”
There are a lot of guys out there making big plays—enough to leave the Heisman race as unsettled as the national championship race. But Tebow isn’t interested in talking about either one.
“I’d rather have a chance to play in Atlanta than be in New York,” he said.
The bigger question is whether Florida—or anyone else from the parity-ravaged SEC—will play in New Orleans come Jan. 7.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.