INSTANT ANALYSIS: Gators vs. UCF, 42-0

There was a point in Saturday night’s game when the Florida Gators had the attitude of a team that wasn’t prepared to beat Tennessee the following weekend.

You might have noticed that same portion of the proceedings against Central Florida in the Swamp: back-to-back passes had been dropped, by Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin. An offense was struggling. The energy level was flagging. Swagger was sagging.

It was as though a team was treating a game as an exhibition, a tune-up, an occasion when maximum effort and concentration did not need to be invested in the battle at hand.

Then, thankfully, things changed. Tim Tebow gave a spark to the offense to get the joint jumping, the defense–which is quickly carrying most of the water for these Gators–continued to smother the Golden Knights, and Chris Leak returned to put his feet on the accelerator. By halftime, a game that had been somewhat competitive turned into a 27-0 rout that only grew more decisive by game’s end.

So what’s left for the Gator Nation to contemplate after the second of two early-season tests in advance of the looming showdown in Knoxville?

The drill is known, and known well, by the fans of college football programs that aspire to greatness. For Florida football fans, early-season games against the Central Floridas of the world aren’t definitive (unless they turn out to be losses or absurdly close escapes; see Florida State against Troy, a development that has to have Gators of all ages feeling positively giddy… I digress…). These games don’t usually determine the direction a team’s season will take, but they sure do indicate what needs to be worked on. For the Gators, then, attitude on offense is the biggest single need for the Boys as they prepare to tackle Tennessee.

In this kind of game, numbers will never adequately tell the story. This 42-0 win wouldn’t have been definitively more impressive had the score been 56-0; just the same, the Gators’ romp over UCF wouldn’t have been officially “disappointing” had the score been 27-0. To look at the score misses the point (except for a defense that didn’t give up a point; that’s the Gator unit that inspires complete confidence heading into Checkerboard Country). What matters is the mindset of UF’s offense.

See, it’s progressively easier to perform as a game goes on and an opponent’s defense–not to mention its will–gets weakened by the widening scoreboard margin and the war of attrition that helps shape these games between the Floridas of the world and the Central Floridas of the college football cosmos. As Florida’s defense continued to get stop after stop after stop, the Golden Knights’ own defense–put on the field for far too long a time–gave way against the Gators. The first half, not the second, represented a fuller measure of where Florida’s offense–and, along with it, the team–stands.

If you like the glass-half-full approach, you’ll note the strong surge before halftime, as the Gator offense acquired an extra edge and a sharper, more focused mindset. If you prefer to use a glass-half-empty perspective, though, you’ll focus on those dropped passes and the less than ideal energy level of the first 20 minutes. At any rate, though, both views point to the same need: for an improved, winning attitude that goes along with championship football teams.

Part of Urban Meyer’s magic–and the reputation that brought him to Gainesville in the first place–is that he possessed a lot of the same swagger that another man brought to Florida football beginning on December 31, 1989. And while Chris Leak needs to be even more technically proficient and fundamentally sound, the biggest thing No. 12 will need in Knoxville (and throughout the 2006 SEC season) is a bit of a strut in his step, the kind of stage presence that will radiate throughout his offensive unit.

It’s one thing to be calm, poised and unruffled, never showing a lot of emotions behind an unchanging poker face. It’s quite another to make big-time plays in statement games and backyard conference brawls. It’s one thing to be liked and respected by your teammates; it’s quite another to get them to elevate their own levels of play.

This is the terrain Chris Leak and UF’s offense must inhabit this season: they must not be content to put up respectable numbers or avoid huge mistakes. They must want, desperately, to carve out a niche as a confident bunch that makes timely plays in the most daunting of circumstances and the most intimidating kinds of environments… Knoxville being one of them.

The attitude that enfolded Florida’s offense in the first 15-20 minutes of this Central Florida game just won’t cut it. The attitude with which the Gator offense closed the first half will get the job done. The verdict on this UCF game, then, is that while Florida’s defense inspires total confidence, this offense–from which so much is expected–needs to begin a game with the mindset of a champion. Picking up the pace 20 minutes in could prove fatal in Knoxville, where cliches about playing a “complete 60 minutes” are proven to be oh-so-true.

Florida will want to lean on its defense next week, but not to the exclusion or limitation of its offense. Great Gator teams over the past two decades could deliver knockout punches on both sides of the ball. That’s nothing less than what Urban Meyer is aspiring to, and for that to happen, an offense must come out of the gate ready to focus, and ready to compete with top-shelf intensity. That the energy was lacking at times against Central Florida is not a verdict on UF’s offense; it does set the stage, however, for next week and the rest of a season that needs to acquire a lot more urgency. Flipping the switch can’t cut it anymore; now, consistent excellence is the mandate for Florida football.