Florida, Oklahoma runaway trains primed for collision
ATLANTA -- There's nothing like the taste of your own blood to trigger the fight-or-flight mechanism in human beings.
You either rise up and resist, or you shrink and retreat.
Saturday was celebration day for two teams that chose to fight.
On Sept. 27, the Florida Gators coughed up a 10-point halftime lead at home and shockingly lost to the Mississippi Rebels. From that point forward, every game was a national championship elimination game. And from that point forward, the Gators became unbeatable. The winning streak is at nine and counting.
Two weeks after Florida was bloodied, the Oklahoma Sooners got their taste of defeat. Like the Gators, they surrendered a halftime lead. Like the Gators, they were outwilled in the second half as the Texas Longhorns did the job in a 45-35 loss Oct. 11. And like the Gators, the Sooners have responded with championship mettle and without a loss.
Now, pending the mere formality puffs of smoke from the BCS Vatican chimney, Oklahoma and Florida will get their sunny South Florida reward for perseverance. In a suspenseless announcement Sunday, they'll receive their official invitations to meet in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 8. You don't have to be Jeff Sagarin to know it's a lock.
No offense to USC, Utah and Penn State, but it's fitting that the national title should boil down to a throwdown between the champions of the two conferences that dominated the season. (There is plenty of offense taken in Texas at the turn of events that denied it a conference championship, but we'll deal with that a little later.)
Big 12 versus SEC, bring it on. The two leagues have combined to win the past three national titles, and this will make it four.
The Gators earned their way by winning a tough-man contest with No. 1, undefeated Alabama here in the SEC championship game. After eight games of utter domination since that Ole Miss loss, Florida went into the fourth quarter in the Georgia Dome trailing the Crimson Tide 20-17 and having surrendered all momentum. Alabama's brutal smashmouth style was winning the day, seemingly carrying the Tide to a wholly unlikely national title shot of their own.
But then Florida dug down, dug in and dug up some unlikely playmakers. No Percy could have meant no mercy, but not with receivers like David Nelson and Riley Cooper stepping forward to fill the void of injured scatback extraordinaire Percy Harvin.
The Gators simply took over a game that seemed in danger of escaping them. They pounded out two touchdown drives and shut down Alabama's offense in the final 15 minutes for a 31-20 triumph. Total yards in the fourth quarter: Florida 130, Alabama 1.
"I don't know the entire history of the University of Florida, but I can imagine that fourth quarter will go down as one of the greatest ever at the University of Florida," Gators coach Urban Meyer said.
In Kansas City, Big 12 South champion Oklahoma performed the predictable with a 62-21 rout of defenseless North champ Missouri to win the league title. (The only thing more lopsided than the Big 12 divisions is Quasimodo.) No doubt about it, Florida had a much tougher task than the Sooners on Saturday.
But the mauling of Missouri ran the Sooners' winning streak to seven, all of them overwhelming. In a league rife with pyrotechnic offenses, Oklahoma's stands alone. It has rampaged to 702 points this season -- the most single-season points in FBS history.
Still, Oklahoma's presumptive place in the BCS title game is not as no-muss/no-fuss as Florida's. It required voters and computers to suffer Red River Revisionism, all but forgetting Texas' head-to-head victory on a neutral field. The Longhorns also finished the regular season with one loss, but theirs clearly counted more than the Sooners' -- even though it was a closer game and on the road at No. 7 Texas Tech.
Although there is plenty of room to decry that outcome as another example of BCS illogic, this cannot be disputed: Oklahoma's fight-or-flight reflex was astonishingly powerful.
Thus we welcome two runaway freight trains to Titletown, where the head-on collision figures to be intense. Florida's average score since the Ole Miss loss: 50-13. Oklahoma's average: 60-29.
In addition to pairing two red-hot and dominant teams, there are some other juicy subplots to latch on to.
• Florida has played 1,053 games in its history, and Oklahoma has played 1,140. Yet they've never played each other. Let the two peacock-proud fan bases commence jawing.
• One coach, either Meyer or Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, will become the first to win a second BCS title.
Meyer will return to his second championship game in three years, continuing his even-year run as king of the football universe. In 2004, Meyer took Utah to an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl victory, which earned him the upgrade to Gainesville. In 2006, his Gators trampled unbeaten Ohio State to win the crystal football. And now in '08 he's back again.
Stoops made his mark in the business sooner than Meyer, guiding Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship. Since then, the Sooners have been annually excellent -- with the glaring exception of BCS bowl games. They've lost four straight, all of them with embarrassment attached.
• We could have a faceoff of Heisman Trophy winners for just the second time. (Oklahoma was involved in the other one as well, when 2003 winner Jason White flopped against '04 winner Matt Leinart in a 55-19 USC romp.)
For that to happen, Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford must win the trophy Saturday, joining Florida QB and 2007 winner Tim Tebow in arguably the most prestigious club in sports. At this point, don't bet against Bradford. The final impression he left with voters against Missouri was one more dazzling effort in a season full of them.
But Tebow's performance in the Georgia Dome was enough to make many voters at least ponder whether he deserves to join Archie Griffin in the back-to-back Heisman club.
As has been the case throughout this season, Tebow's numbers were not as dazzling as last year's. But the end result has been more victories. Against an excellent Alabama defense, Tebow racked up 57 high-impact rushing yards and 216 through the air, including three touchdown passes. And, as usual, he avoided making any major errors -- zero interceptions, keeping his season total at two.
But the most extraordinary thing about Tebow is not his physical prowess or his stats -- it's his powerful leadership and unquenchable competitiveness.
It was Tebow who made the now-famous, emotional promise after the Ole Miss loss that Florida would exert itself to the fullest on every play the rest of the season. Standing amid the falling confetti on the Georgia Dome field, his promise was kept.
"His will is beyond anything you'll ever see," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said.
With championship hopes hanging in the balance, Tebow was brilliant in the fourth quarter. He completed all five of his passes for 72 yards and the clinching score, a rope to Cooper on a slant pass from 5 yards out with 2 minutes and 50 seconds left.
Yet my favorite Tebow moment came after that score. He raced a good 20 yards at a dead sprint toward the kickoff coverage team's huddle, crashing into his teammates as if it were fourth-and-1. After watching the Gators surrender a 41-yard kickoff return to Bama cornerback Javier Arenas earlier in the quarter, he didn't want to see a repeat.
"I was saying, 'Just finish. Finish, make a play, and let's finish this thing.' All those guys were pretty much on the same page."
Of course they were. If they weren't, you get the feeling Tebow might have torn their heads off.
Freshly galvanized, Florida hammered Arenas to the ground at the Alabama 17. The game was as good as over at that point.
"This," Meyer said, "will go down as one of the great wins in Florida football history."
It gives Florida a chance to play one more game of historic import this season, against an Oklahoma team that shares an attribute with the Gators. When faced with adversity, both chose fight over flight.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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