UF 2006: Something Old, Something New …

It’s been like an engagement to the prettiest girl in town. When Urban Meyer said yes to the Gators two years ago, the fans were giddy. There have been times when the fans weren’t totally enamored with the stubborn Meyer. Still they knew it was a partnership that would be great for the long haul. This engagement ends on January 8th, when Meyer and his Gators go to the altar to make history.

There is an old English wedding custom that has carried over to this great nation that is a symbol of good luck. The bride is supposed to bring four items to the wedding and if she does the marriage will be a happy and long one

The wedding custom is a microcosm of what Meyer will take to the stage in Glendale, Arizona this year. The Gators have been on a roll with luck this year with only a heinous officiating and replay call keeping them from being undefeated. Had the correct call been made, there is a very good chance everybody would be talking about how the BCS worked instead of admitting once again the system couldn’t get it right. Meyer will look to bring their good luck with them to Glendale when he brings along “something old, something new, something borrowed, and no Big Blue.”

Something Old …

They have plenty of old to bring to the table in Arizona. On offense seniors Chris Leak, DeShawn Wynn, Billy Latsko, Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Kenneth Tookes, and Steve Rissler have 145 career starts among them. They are the bubble gum and baling wire that has held the offense together in the tough times and the leadership that has spurred the Gators to improve all along the way to the point where the Gators are one of just three teams this season that has won 12 games.

These seniors have thrown for 2,729 yards, run for 673 yards, and caught passes for 1,574 yards just in this season alone. Rissler is the proud papa of an inexperienced but always improving offensive line. But all the stats and the minutes on the field don’t necessarily tell what this group has been through.

“Something old” in the bridal custom symbolizes continuity and a link to the past. This group of offensive seniors has been through three offensive coordinators in four years. They have all suffered through more than one identity crisis with the offense yet they persevered.

Chris Leak will finish his career with nearly every important passing record at the University of Florida and now he has a championship legacy to go with the records. The bar for any Gator quarterback was set almost unreachably high 12 years ago and even though it’s taken Leak four full years to reach the measuring standard, now he can count himself one of the few and the proud.

Dallas Baker is the emotional leader on offense. Baker broke down and cried after Jarvis Moss leapt high in the air to block a field goal attempt against South Carolina, preserving the Gators lead and win. Baker has responded all season long with the tough catches in the big games but his blocking and leadership have been every bit as important as the catches. And, it was Baker who originally committed to Steve Spurrier at Florida and did not qualify. He went the prep school route and then re-committed to Florida and Ron Zook. His emotions got the best of him at Tennessee two years ago and many wanted to run him off after a play that some fans felt cost Florida a chance at winning. Now that he’s among the top receivers all time in Florida history and a few days away from a college degree, there isn’t a Gator fan alive that doesn’t wish Dallas Baker could play another four years.

DeShawn Wynn has been somewhat maligned as well. When Gators think of Wynn, they think of that 65-yard run against Miami as a freshman where he split the tackle of two first round picks on the way to the end zone. Then they think about the injury plagued Wynn that seems to tiptoe at times at the line. Now, with the Gators fighting for a championship, Gators realize how important he is. They will remember the drives at the end of the Tennessee and Georgia games to run out the clock when Wynn, injuries and all, wanted the football so he could take the team on his back.

Then there is Jemalle Cornelius, whom Meyer says is the “Face of Florida Football.” He makes clutch catches, never complains when he spends most of the game throwing blocks, plays on every special team and won’t come off the field even when he’s hurt. He’s the first guy every one of his teammates thinks of when there is a problem or an issue to deal with. Rock steady is a good way to describe him.

On defense Meyer will bring another special group of players that have been around a while. Seniors Ray McDonald, Joe Cohen, Steven Harris, Brian Crum, Earl Everett, Reggie Lewis, Jermaine McCollum, Tremaine McCollum, and Nick Brooks have accounted for 252 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and 17 defended passes this season. They are the core of a defense that has pulled the Gators through almost every single game this season while the offense tried to find its identity. It is also a group that has fought through adversity over their careers to make a difference.

Ray McDonald started his senior season not knowing what to expect. He had surgery to repair two torn ACL’s and has moved back and forth from defensive end to defensive tackle. He is a force wherever he lines up and no Gator fan will ever forget the fumble recovery for a touchdown in the Georgia game that was the difference in the game this season.

Steven Harris is another great story and a player that almost didn’t play the entire season. Meyer cited personal issues tat was keeping Harris from being on the team and he missed the entire spring for conduct detrimental to him being on the team. Harris made life adjustments enough to get back on the team but rarely played early in the season. Since the early departure of another defensive tackle Harris has had to step up his play and has found a new home at the nose guard position. Harris is now playing the best ball of his five year career. Not only that, in a few more days he will have his college degree.

Reggie Lewis should always be remembered as a player whose willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team paid off in a big way. He started his career at wide receiver but moved to corner when Meyer and his new coaching staff came to Florida. He never sulked but threw himself into learning a new position. He got on the field a lot as a junior but now as a senior he has s another player that made sacrifices that now see him being a prime time player for the Gators. The starting cornerback started his career at wide receiver. When Meyer and company came to Florida, he was asked to immediately move positions and instead of sulking or debating, he made the best of it. He played a lot as a junior and has started every game this season at cornerback. He leads all the seniors with three interceptions.

All of these seniors have been through the transition of new coaches. They finished second in the East Division of the SEC for three straight years but now they have had enjoyed the breakthrough year in their final season as Gators. Florida has a championship because they all decided to stick it out, join together and make a push as seniors. Urban Meyer is taking more than luck to the national championship game with these seniors. He is taking a group of veteran players that have been through wars and have figured out through adversity how to win.

Something New …

The Gators are playing 27 freshmen this year. As many veterans as Urban Meyer has making plays for him, he has a group of freshmen that provide some spark and some back bone to the entire team. When they were in high school, Meyer sold them on coming to Florida to compete for championships. First year and redshirt freshmen have done their part to make a championship happen this year.

True freshman Percy Harvin is probably the most electrifying player on the team. Coming off an MVP performance in the SEC Championship Game, Harvin also took home SEC Freshman of the Year honors this week. He was one of several big time prospects in last year’s recruiting class and a bonafide hit on the field.

Jarred Fayson also has made his presence felt this year. One of the most important plays of the season was his blocked punt against Arkansas Saturday night that one play later led to Florida’s touchdown of the game. Fayson is a Harvin close and they can do many of the same things on the field. He will have a huge impact on the Gators in the future, but he’s so versatile that he will have chances to make his presence felt in the national championship game as well.

Tim Tebow is the golden boy quarterback that grew up fast. Legend has it that Tebow not only spanked the doctor at birth but he spiked him as well. Tebow has earned his niche on the team as the short yardage quarterback and a threat at any time to drop back and throw, keeping the defenses honest. There are not many players out there that want to see him coming with the ball in his hands.

Texas born freshman Brandon Antwine could be called to duty early in Glendale if Ray McDonald can’t play at 100 percent. Antwine is a first year defensive tackle that came through in the second half against Arkansas with the game on the line. He is already someone the staff can count on to do what he is supposed to do.

The list goes on with all of the new guys. Freshman cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis recovered a muffed punt for the go-ahead touchdown on Saturday. Freshman cornerback Markihe Anderson has seen increasing minutes when games were in doubt. Dorian Munroe had to play more than a half at strong safety against Arkansas when Tony Joiner went down with an injury. Brandon Spikes has filled in at middle linebacker and on the strong side. Can anyone forget Riley Cooper’s hit on the LSU kick returner to cause a safety that turned the momentum completely in Florida’s favor? Brandon James might be the most dangerous return man in the country.

The new guys came in with the idea of getting on the field early and so many have done just that. The Gators wouldn’t be going to Arizona without their contributions and the future of Florida football wouldn’t be nearly so bright without them.

Something Borrowed …

Maybe no other new player to the Gators this year has made a bigger impact than junior Ryan Smith. The Gators borrowed Smith from Utah after a new NCAA rule that allows players to transfer if they have eligibility remaining and they have earned their undergraduate degree. Smith got his bachelor’s degree in July and then headed east to play for Meyer and cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, his coaches at Utah when he made Freshman All-American. Smith saw his role diminish last year at Utah so he needed a fresh start. He got that at Florida and now he leads the SEC in interceptions with eight.

What makes Smith’s role on the team so special is the way he has handled everything with class and humility. Meyer always talks about how Smith takes the time to text him and thank him for the chance to rediscover the joy of playing football at Florida. Mark it down, Smith will make a big play in Arizona.

No Big Blue …

Okay, so it’s supposed to be “something blue.” So sue me. Not only will there be no Big Blue in the national championship game, the folks in Ann Arbor are awfully blue every time they consider the fact there will be no Mulligan in this college football season. The Wolverines had their chance to win the conference that math forgot (the Big Ten actually has eleven teams, but who’s counting, right?) but they lost to Ohio State and now it’s Florida’s chance to play prove itself worthy of playing the mighty Buckeyes.

Michigan lost to Ohio State but thinks it should be afforded a second chance. Ohio State ran the table (12-0) in the regular season and beat Big Blue even though it turned the ball over FIVE times. Why should Ohio State be held to a double jeopardy standard? If you’re going to rematch the two teams, then make it best two out of three so it has some significance.

So it is Florida and no Big Blue. Although Michigan fans and supporters think it’s a travesty that Florida is playing for all the marbles, remember this. Florida not only won its division in the toughest conference in America, but the Gators beat a 10-win team in the conference championship game, too. There is no dishonor for Florida to be playing this game. The Gators belong because they are 12-1 and champs of the Southeastern Conference. They belong because Florida’s coach found all the necessary parts and made them fit just right. In the end, the Gators might not have been the sexy choice, but they were the only choice and that’s all that matters.