By Steve Anderson
Don’t take our word for it. The 2008 Florida Gators, may simply be, as ex-coach Urban Meyer once announced on Twitter a couple years ago, the best team that ever played college football. Consider this, 24 Gators from that 2008 team played in the National Football League, including some premier Pro Bowl talents (WR Percy Harvin, both Pouncey twins, CB Joe Haden, TE Aaron Hernandez, QB Cam Newton) and some guys that will likely make Pro Bowls in the future (DE Carlos Dunlap, CB Janoris Jenkins).
Let’s not forget the quarterback, Tim Tebow, who was mentioned by name on television more than both presidential candidates combined in 2008, an election year. Ok, I kid. Tebowmania has had mixed results in the pros, but he did win a playoff game. Chances are though, if Urban Meyer says the 2008 Gators were the best to ever do it, he should know; he’s coached a few 10-win programs and is a premier college X-and-O tactician. For what it is worth, Meyer has moved on and so have the Gators.
But let’s reminisce! There were folks in Gainesville, who thought prior to the season the 2008 Florida Gators could be something special. After a 2007 season that was prolific offensively, especially for Tebow who shattered plenty of NCAA records en route to a Heisman trophy. That 2007 kind-of youngish defense gave Tebow, unfortunately, more of scoring opportunities than coach Meyer would’ve liked. But in 2008, with all the horses a year older, the whole gang got back together to make 2008 a season for the ages.
They averaged 43.6 points a game and dropped 50 on opponents five times. Think about it—Tebow and Harvin; those guys alone had 42 ways to beat you. When Harvin wasn’t catching bubble screens, taking direct handoffs or catching bombs from the left-handed Tebow, the Gators would shuffle in two mini-Harvins with Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Both of these guys had Olympic type speed but could do dirty work inside before bouncing it out for chunks of yards. If that didn’t work they had mighty-mite Brandon James. Add to that a full stable of big, fast wideouts including Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, David Nelson and the mismatch-creating Aaron Hernandez. All those receivers play significant minutes on Sundays now. If the Gators blew you out early, you could see sophomore not-yet-ex-Gator Cam Newton taking snaps. Talk about a loaded squad.
As many mismatches as that offense created, it was the defense that broke the will of many Gator opponents that year. The Gators allowed opponents 12.9 points a game—down from the 25.5 per game they surrendered in 2007. All of their defensive stalwarts had another year in their belt. Brandon Sikes was simply a beast in the middle. When the enemy had enough of getting stuffed in the backfield on runs by Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham and others, they took to the air.
And in the air they failed miserably most of the time; Gator defenders intercepted 26 passes that year, as all-American Joe Haden would be assigned to opposing teams’ number one receiver. Freshman Janoris Jenkins would typically draw the number two receiver. Dunlap and Cunningham were relentless in the pass rush combining for 15.5 sacks. That pressure and the airtight coverage by the corners made opposing coaches prefer to attack the Florida safeties; Ahmad Black and Major Wright combined for 11 picks, 212 return yards and three pick-sixes that year. These Gators were simply the fastest and strongest in a conference that was built on speed and strength.
Gator opponents had to keep throwing that year because the Gators outscored opponents by an average of 31.8 points. They put 51 on number four LSU; dropped 63 the week after on hapless Kentucky and then followed that up a week later with 49 on rival Georgia at the annual Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville. They still found the time to put 56 on the Gamecocks in November and then put 31 on a Crimson Tide defense that featured plenty of NFL talent in the SEC Championship. Ironically, their season low in points (24) came in the title game against Oklahoma. But there’s that defense holding one the most prolific offenses of all time that averaged 51.1 points and scored 57 or more seven times, to a paltry two touchdowns in a 24-14 title win for the Gators.
I know what you’re thinking. Those Gators, as statistically ridiculous as any team prior, still lost a game, the heartbreaker to the Ole Miss Rebels 31-30. That lone loss, means they couldn’t possibly be better than 2009 Alabama (14-0) or the 2010 Auburn team (13-0) teams that went undefeated. Wrong. It was a one-point loss that spurred Timmy football to create the accord with Gator Nation called “The Promise” and to aid this argument; I am going to pull the “NFL Card.”
The Gators had a smorgasbord of NFL talent on the 2008 roster, more so than any BCS-team I can recall. Consider the offense; Tim Tebow (Broncos/Jets), Cam Newton (Panthers), Chris Rainey (Steelers), Jeff Demps (Patriots), Brandon James (Colts) Percy Harvin (Vikings), Louis Murphy (Panthers), David Nelson (Bills), Riley Cooper (Eagles), Deonte Thompson (Ravens), Aaron Hernandez (Patriots), Maurkice Pouncey (Steelers), Mike Pouncey (Dolphins) and Phil Trautwein (Browns) have all played in the NFL and all but Brandon James and Trautwein are currently active in the league. That’s thirteen on the offense; let’s look at the defense. Jermaine Cunningham (Patriots), Jaye Howard (Seahawks), Carlos Dunlap (Bengals), Brandon Spikes (Patriots), Ahmad Black (Bucs), Joe Haden (Browns), Janoris Jenkins (Rams), Will Hill (Giants), Justin Trattou (Giants), Major Wright (Bears) and punter Chas Henry (Bucs). That’s 11 more on defense and special teams bringing the total to 24 active/retired NFL players from the 2008 Florida Gators one year.
In Alabama’s defense, the 2009 Crimson Tide had/have a similar number of NFL talent, but the 2008 Gators were simply more dominant even with the one loss. If we let them duke it out in make-believe world, Alabama’s 2009 offense would likely struggle to keep pace with the 2008 Florida Gator attack. The 2008 Gators defense would have their hands full with the Tide’s 2009 offense but a lot of those guys were still on the team in 2008 when Florida beat them.
Either Haden or Jenkins could’ve slowed down Julio Jones and made the Tide one-dimensional. In the end, fans of college powerhouses are going to believe their version of the “best team ever” would’ve beaten so-and-so. In the end, that’s all this piece may end up being—until I turn on the game on Sunday; or play fantasy football, or do anything else NFL. I’m continually reminded of how awesome and deep that 2008 team was. Speed and strength, my friends; those 2008 Gator Boys had it in droves and abundance and certainly have set the bar high for the Gator Nation.