Emotions, Opportunities and Burdens

The last time the Florida Gators came to suburban Phoenix to contend for the national championship, the weight of an unfamiliar occasion turned a title fight from an opportunity into a burden. After a solid start against Nebraska in the East Phoenix suburb of Tempe, the Gators wilted under the pressure applied by a host of hulking Huskers.

Part I: The Perspective

This physical weight turned into emotional baggage, and a Florida team that was new to championship-game challenges could not rise above the moment.

The fruits of the lopsided loss to Nebraska would emerge the next year, but on the night of January 2, 1996, a team learned that a big game must always be thought of as an opportunity. The moment the Gators sagged in the face of Nebraska’s hellacious heft marked the point when they allowed themselves to get dismantled in the Desert. The loss to Nebraska wasn’t a question of deficient talent, but of an insufficient will that was magnified and exposed by an environment that isn’t easy for a group of young men to handle.

Fast forward eleven years, and the parallels are both vivid and relevant. After a walk in college football’s championship wilderness for a few years, the Gators–far removed from the Steve Spurrier years and living in a very different world–come back to suburban Phoenix as a title-game newbie. The Buckeyes–red-shirted just as Nebraska was over a decade ago–will be the BCS bowl regulars and, even more specifically, a team that’s very familiar with the land the locals call “The Valley of the Sun.” Ohio State has made suburban Phoenix its January destination in (now) four of the past five seasons. Florida’s done a ton of growing up in Urban Meyer’s short tenure, but the fact still stands that by any appreciable standard, it’s the Buckeyes who have more big-game experience. The challenge–a layered combination of the mental and physical–is much the same for these Boys of Old Florida as it was for the 1995 Gators against Tom Osborne’s juggernaut. Whereas one Gator group failed, this Florida fraternity has a chance to write a different script in a fabulously entertaining production that one could easily refer to as the football version of “West Side Story.”

From a purely literary and thematic perspective, it’s fitting–from a Gator perspective–that this BCS title game is being played in the West Phoenix suburb of Glendale. After losing in Tempe’s old Sun Devil Stadium on that disappointing night in ‘96, the Gators will now play on the west side of town in the gleaming new home of the Arizona Cardinals. The change of suburbs and scenes will give longtime Gator fans a chance to turn the page. Orange and Blue backers won’t have to return to the site of a very unpleasant event in Florida football history.

Accordingly, this westward progression enables Urban Meyer–a devoted, straight-A student of Florida football history under Steve Spurrier–to succeed in the metropolitan area where his famous predecessor faltered eleven years ago. Aside of finding the right approach on offense (see analysis, below), the other major task in front of Meyer as game time nears is to get his team to view this game as an opportunity and not a burden. By having fun and taking care of business at the same time, the Gators–with joy and juice, confidence and coolness, power and poise, speed and serenity–will indeed write the text of a “West Side Story” that will shake the earth in the Phoenix area. A Florida upset would reverberate throughout this sprawling Desert metropolis, shocking the world the same way Jim Tressel’s Ohio State Buckeyes did when they moved Miami off the mountaintop in a memorable Fiesta Bowl just four years ago.

Meyer–who has a method to his mastery of male minds–needs to find a way to get his team to remember Reggie Nelson’s mom in a way that inspires the locker room instead of dragging it down. Even more importantly, Florida’s head coach must get his team–a controversial selection over Michigan for the right to play in this contest–to ignore the pressure that has historically dogged the team that enters the BCS title game under a cloud of uncertainty.

Unconvinced about this last point? Just consider the history of the BCS title game.

The Oklahoma Sooners confronted this reality in both 2004 (Sugar Bowl) and 2005 (Orange), and Bob Stoops’ ballclubs–whose credentials were heavily questioned–treated the BCS title game as a burden; they got whipped both times, by LSU and USC. Nebraska was a hugely controversial selection for the 2002 Rose Bowl, and got blasted in a listless performance against Miami. Florida State was a dubious title game participant in both 1999 (Fiesta Bowl) and 2000 (Orange); the Noles played like dogs in each of those contests. Florida’s “West Side Story,” the best off-Broadway show of the new year, will hit the Phoenix streets only if the Gators don’t feel they have to prove anything to either Michigan or to the larger college football community. The Gators only have to play for themselves, the love of the game, and for the chance to do what all elite athletes dream about: display their very best stuff against the very best opponent they could possibly hope to encounter. Excellence–not a blue ribbon in a beauty contest–is what the Gators are pursuing on January 8. Urban Meyer needs to get his boys into that frame of mind.

History shows what happens to teams when they view this big stage as a burden. Gator fans–especially those who flew out to Phoenix eleven years ago–know this all too well. If the west side of Phoenix is to provide an event that’s different from the east side horror show of 1996, a coach and a team–back in the big arena for a championship showdown–must display a different mindset against an imposing bunch of battle-tested Buckeyes.

Part II: The Analysis

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve already been exposed to many of the major themes in this contest, so we’ll try to provide a preview that offers appreciably fresh and original insights. One idea you won’t hear about anywhere else–and which will indeed play a large role in the January 8 showdown–is the “Mark Bradley moment.”

What’s a Mark Bradley moment? You only need to recall the 2005 Orange Bowl, the BCS title game contested by Oklahoma and USC. When Sooner punt returner Mark Bradley fumbled a punt inside his own five-yard line, Oklahoma suddenly and shockingly lost its focus. One huge mistake took all the air out of an entire team, noticeably shifting the emotional calculus of a much-hyped and long-awaited contest. Given the over-the-top media pressure and wall-to-wall saturation coverage that currently define BCS title games, the young minds placed in such a white-hot spotlight will do something weird at some point in the proceedings. Last year’s Mark Bradley moment was turned in by USC’s Reggie Bush, who made an inexplicably stupid and unnecessary lateral attempt that turned into a huge Texas fumble recovery. It was one isolated incident, but the effects were substantial: in just a few seconds, one boneheaded action prevented USC from establishing something of a command position in the first half. After more than a month of preparation, a split-second decision undid so many of Pete Carroll’s plans… just as Mark Bradley’s brain cramp destroyed Bob Stoops’ designs the year before.

This year, then, all of Ohio State’s chalkboard advantages could go out the window if one astonishing play turns momentum squarely in Florida’s direction. All the ink spilled about this contest will cease to matter if (or when) one huge mistake creates a 180-degree shift in the flow of the action in Glendale. That’s the first and most important thing to keep in mind about Gators-Buckeyes.

From a blackboard standpoint, the biggest key to the game will be the approach of Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen, UF’s offensive braintrust. Meyer and Mullen have constantly been trying to find the right mix on offense all season long. They’ve tried to work one-on-one matchups at times, but have then wandered off the path and pursued trick-play touchdowns. Mullen, Florida’s offensive coordinator, has tried to give his offense the element of surprise while also seeking to make dropback quarterback Chris Leak more comfortable than he was in 2005, when everyone on the offensive side of the ball in Gainesville had a difficult time learning the Meyer-Mullen system. Mullen’s play calling, combined with Meyer’s willingness to give backup quarterback Tim Tebow some snaps as a spread-formation runner, have been designed to keep defenses guessing on each and every play. With Leak, the passer, running some option plays and Tebow, a runner, using a few (very rare) passing plays, Mullen wants to get defenses in situations where it doesn’t fully know what each Gator quarterback will do. And with five weeks to prepare for Ohio State, Mullen will have a lot of time in which to teach his players the finer points of some specialty plays and packages. In particular, one should expect Mullen to prepare a few pass plays for Tebow that can get the Buckeye defense on a pendulum.

The big question surrounding this specific issue is as follows: how much will Mullen try to establish receiver Percy Harvin and other speed merchants in individual matchups against OSU’s corners, balanced against the need to create confusion throughout the Buckeyes’ entire defense? With a month to coach up his talented but young skill position people, Mullen might have reason to expect that the sheer ability possessed by his offensive studs could outweigh the limitations posed by their relative lack of experience. While Ohio State’s skill people are seasoned and fully formed, Florida has offensive players who are extremely unpolished at this point. But with a month of preparation, Mullen could well think that he can produce sharper reactions and better habits from his receiving corps… enough to destroy Ohio State’s secondary and dramatically reshape the prevailing wisdom in this contest.

If Mullen has enough confidence in his players, Florida could run more basic packages in this game and try to beat the Buckeyes straight up. On the other hand, an offensive package loaded with exotics and wrinkles–especially with OSU’s defense being rusty after a 50-day layoff–could prove to be the more prudent strategy for Mullen and Meyer as they scheme and strategize in advance of this title tilt. All in all, it will be very interesting–and, moreover, significant–to see what Florida’s offensive staff ultimately chooses to do. It will represent the biggest fundamental decision in the entire game. Sure, there will be telling adjustments made by both staffs within the ebb-and-flow of the contest, but it’s what Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen decide to do before January 8 that will have the greatest amount of impact on the night’s proceedings in Glendale.

A final key element of this game–but something which hasn’t received all that much (if any) publicity to this point–is Dallas Baker and, more specifically, his size. With Florida’s offense facing more than a little pressure to perform with maximum effectiveness against the loaded Buckeyes, it is Baker–more than any other offensive player for the Gators–who could make a huge difference.

If Dan Mullen chooses a simple game plan and places an emphasis on nuts-and-bolts execution to minimize mistakes while trusting the athleticism of his receivers, Baker stands out as a huge key because–unlike Percy Harvin or other speed merchants in the Florida fold–he can win a ball with his size and strength. If the Gators find themselves in a 3rd and medium in the middle of the field, they can use Baker on a sit-down route and have No. 81 box out a defender, basketball-style, with his large frame. Against a well-schooled Ohio State defense, Baker is the kind of player who can make plays for the Gators in the simplest kinds of ways. He doesn’t have to blow a corner away with his speed or elude a safety (or linebacker) as the product of clever scheming from Mullen. No, Baker can succeed simply on the basis of his height and strength–not only in that aforementioned third and medium situation, but in a third and goal situation where a fade will enable him to grab a jump ball. Whether he’s boxing out a defender in the middle of the field or out-jumping a defender near the sideline on a fade, Dallas Baker can use basketball principles to become a huge X-factor against Ohio State, even without complexity or creativity from Florida’s offensive staff. In a game where Florida’s offensive answers will determine how competitive this game will in fact be, Dallas Baker is the central focus of many questions that are staring Dan Mullen and Urban Meyer squarely in the face.