Tough guys

There was that night in Starkville back in October when the normally quiet East Mississippi town turned electric because the Florida Gators were in town. Starkville has seen fewer big games than any school in the Southeastern Conference with the exception of Vanderbilt, but on this night Scott Field took on a championship game atmosphere complete with fans ready to storm the field in case Mississippi State pulled off a miracle of feeding the 5,000 proportions by upsetting the number one-ranked Florida Gators.

For all practical purposes, this was Mississippi State’s national championship game. The Bulldogs had already been eliminated from contention in the SEC West, but a win over the Gators and the goal posts would have been torn down at both ends of the field. It is like that every time the Florida Gators play. In winning all 12 of their regular season games and extending their winning streak to 22 games, which is the fourth best in the history of the Southeastern Conference, the Gators have transformed every single game into a championship atmosphere where the crowds are energized.

And, as Ole Miss discovered last year, a win over the Florida Gators can energize an entire team and create a reversal of fortunes. The Rebels beat the Gators 31-30 at The Swamp on September 27 of last year, an improbable win that turned their entire season around.

Of course, an unexpected loss can also provide a springboard for success. Following that loss to Ole Miss, Tim Tebow delivered his now famous promise to the Gator Nation and since then 22 straight opponents have gone down. The first 10 got the Gators their 2008 national championship and they seem almost easy in comparison to the 12 wins this season. Last year the Gators were chasing down a championship. This season they have worn the collar of greater expectations than ever before which has created that every game is a championship game atmosphere.

As the Gators have climbed all 12 rungs of a ladder that will take them to Atlanta to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome Saturday, they couldn’t help but notice that the target that has been on their backs since they beat Oklahoma to win the 2008 national title has only grown more prominent and to no one’s surprise, the Gators have gotten the best shot of every team they’ve played this year.

Getting the best shot every game out comes with the territory when you’ve won as often as Meyer has at Florida. Since taking over the Florida program in 2005, Meyer is 56-9; 47-6 with this senior class. The Gators have won two of the last three national championships and they’re on a mission to finish this year to become the first team in Florida football history to finish undefeated while becoming the first team since Nebraska (1994-95; ’97) to win three national titles in four years.

Florida’s success turns ordinary games into big game motivation for opponents who emphasize a win over the Gators means a permanent place in the record books. But the Gators understand their place in the record books, too.

“They get to make history by beating the Gators … wait a minute! We get to make history by winning another one,” Meyer said at his Monday press conference.

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Cornerback Joe Haden, who is playing at a first team All-American level says Meyer’s secret is his ability to make even the weakest opponent seem like it belongs in the top ten.  After the Gators finished the SEC portion of their schedule with a win in Columbia over South Carolina, the Gators played host to Florida International, a bottom feeder in the Sun Belt Conference, perhaps the weakest of all Division I leagues. Haden said Meyer wouldn’t allow the Gators to look past FIU even though archrival Florida State was coming to town a week later.

“He [Meyer] takes every game so seriously,” Haden said. “He doesn’t look past anybody.”

And while the Florida game was the equivalent of a national championship game for FIU, Meyer turned FIU into a championship game for the Gators through hard work, preparation and focus.

“The way he prepares the team every week is a championship week,” Haden said. “Sometimes you try to figure out how you do that when you’re playing against FIU and you know you have Florida State next week but he had us playing for FIU, that’s it. There was no talk for anything. He makes you prepare for FIU like they were Alabama.”

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The actual preparation for Alabama actually began a couple of days after the Gators knocked off Oklahoma in the national championship game back in January. There was no mention of Alabama or any other team as the Gators began their offseason strength and conditioning program, but Mickey Marotti was getting them ready to win 12 games so they could go into Atlanta on December 5 with an unbeaten record.

The offseason program is all about building toughness. Marotti believes great teams are filled with tough guys who know how to persevere through any difficulty and when faced with the greatest challenges respond with their best efforts.

“We feel like we’ve won the games because of what we’ve done in January, February, March ,April and May, the work we’ve put in,” said Tim Tebow, whose reputation for toughness is almost as great as his reputation for doing good. “That’s why we feel we are 12-0 right now, because the work we’ve put in with him [Marotti]. He does such a good job and it’s not just about weight training in there. Very little of our offseason program is about actually getting physically stronger. It’s getting mentally stronger. It’s when your back is against the wall — the fight or flight syndrome. That’s so much of what our team is about.”

Tebow will always be remembered for his fourth quarter performances against Alabama and Oklahoma in last year’s SEC and national championship games. Tebow elevated his level of play when the games were on the line in the fourth quarters and that in turn elevated the play of the entire team.

“You even see it in the fourth quarter of games,” Tebow said. “We’ve kind of played well in the fourth quarter of games. We want to wear the other team out.”

The Gators wear opponents out because they are a very strong team physically but Meyer says “if it was just bench pressing then everyone would have great fourth quarters because there isn’t a program that doesn’t bench press.” The strength has more to do with what’s between the Gators’ ears than the power in the biceps.

That’s why the offseason program is designed with one thing in mind, making the Gators the toughest team in the country both physically and mentally.

“You make them understand and it’s so easy once they see it,” Meyer said. “Why are we doing it? What are you doing? You’re training mentally for the toughest situation that you can pull out of and that’s in the fourth quarter against a great team.”

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The tough guy approach has gotten the Gators to this point in the season unbeaten and closing in on the first back-to-back national championships in Florida football history. Along the way the Gators have taken the best shot from 12 straight opponents and now an entire season boils down to one game. Beat Alabama Saturday and the Gators move on to Pasadena for the national championship game. The stakes are as high as they have ever been for a Florida football team but the approach will be the same as always.

“Our guys handle this like a one game elimination tournament,” Meyer said.

One game at a time is the same sermon Meyer has been preaching for 22 consecutive games dating back to September 27, 2008, the last time the Gators lost a game. Maybe it sounds like the same old, same old, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.