Commentary

Red-hot Gators focused on the task at hand

Originally Published: November 13, 2008
By Chris Fowler | ESPN.com

The intensity was crackling down the phone line. It was evident even though I was taking the call amidst the normal crowds and chaos of Miami International Airport and trying to focus over a female voice shrieking about various gate changes in two languages.

It was not a "tranquilo" setting to chat with Florida coach Urban Meyer about his amped-up Gators.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
J. Meric/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and the Gators have clinched a spot in the SEC title game against Alabama.

Then again, Urban wasn't really in "chat" mode and, for him, focus was hardly an issue. It rarely is. But Florida's boss is particularly keyed up these days. Answers came quickly, briefly and to the point.

Meyer can see the prize (or prizes) ahead. He knows his Gators are peaking. They have achieved a rare chemistry that he said "borders on phenomenal."

He also knows it is all quite fragile. This is the SEC. If you take your eyes off your opponent for a split second to admire the scenery, you are likely to get hit with a haymaker.

Of course, that already has happened once to Florida.

After a sloppy home lapse against Ole Miss, the Gators have played possessed football. They have bounced off the canvas. Thanks to a couple of surprises in the Big 12 and the loss by Penn State, the Gators are on track once again.

Meyer sounded possessed about not letting his staff or his team take their eyeballs off the next snap of the next game. That shouldn't be hard since Saturday's visit is from the ole Head Ball Coach himself. Meyer said he has been taught that lesson in his first few years in the SEC. If you take anyone lightly, you pay for it.

The return to the Swamp of Steve Spurrier, Florida's original football hero, is always compelling.

"Hey, Urban, what do you think you'll say to Steve when you see him before the game?" I asked him.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFlorida is focused on Steve Spurrier's Swamp return.

"Nothing," replied the Florida coach. Meyer said he doesn't even attempt that phony banter for the cameras you see coaches do as their teams stretch. "We talk in the offseason," he said. "We're friendly, but I don't go for that talk-before-the-game stuff."

Meyer honestly said there is no chance his team will be peeking ahead of the huge Dec. 6 collision with No. 1 Alabama at the SEC championship game in Atlanta. His team has full respect for South Carolina. Heck, Florida's 2006 national championship team was very, very lucky to escape a crushing home loss to the Gamecocks. Meyer's beloved special teams bailed the Gators out that day with a blocked field goal.

The '08 special teams are even better. Since Bob Davie burdened him with special-teams responsibility at Notre Dame, Meyer has made it his mission to manage the kicking game. At the time, he traveled the landscape to learn about special teams -- including the required stop in Blacksburg, Va., of course. Meyer coached the special teams while running the programs at Bowling Green and Utah, too.

Meyer uses all sorts of gimmicks to make the special teams seem ... special. His custom is to let special-teams players eat first at training table. They get first pick of the best equipment-room gear. In 2005, they were presented their SEC rings before the rest of the team. Starters get the message: It's cool to be on special teams. Many of the Gators' most talented guys are on the punt-block team, and former five-star recruit and USC transfer Emmanuel Moody is now "begging" for a spot on that unit, Meyer told me.

However, it is Florida's offensive line that deserves a huge part of the credit for the team's current roll. This is the first time at Florida that Meyer has felt really confident and comfortable with his O-line. At Utah, it was the unsung reason behind the Utes' spread success. Not until this season did Meyer feel like he had a Gators group that strong.

Opposing coaches who scout tape of the Gators point to a shift in emphasis away from the "spread-you-out-and-pitch-it-around" approach to a more physical, power-oriented run game. "That's accurate," Meyer said. As I said, he was in a mood for short answers.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Paul Abell/US PresswireQuarterback Tim Tebow and and the Gators are averaging 42.8 points per game this season.

According to Meyer, Tim Tebow's emotional media briefing after the Ole Miss loss, when he "promised" no team would work harder, etc., was not really a turning point for the Heisman winner. He has maintained his high level throughout, Meyer told me. Instead, it was a rallying point for the rest of the team, which raised its level.

Ellis Johnson, the veteran defensive guru who now runs South Carolina's top-rated SEC defense, said Florida is not as explosive as the Pat White/Steve Slaton/Owen Schmitt/Darius Reynaud-led West Virginia offenses he faced twice while at Mississippi State. The current Gators are more dangerous with the passing game, though.

According to Johnson, the team that has done the best job limiting the Gators' offense is Miami, way back in Week 2. Remember, that game was 9-3 Florida until the fourth quarter. Of course, Percy Harvin was not yet fully healthy, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey had not yet found themselves, and the O-line was still jelling. So containing UF is a whole different deal now.

Florida has been so dominant in the past five games that the Gators have an amazing 80-0 edge in first-quarter scoring!

If Vandy had not added a late touchdown last week, the Gators would have become just the second SEC team to win five straight conference games by at least 30 points each. The other was Florida's 1996 national championship team.

If no one at Florida and Alabama admits to thinking ahead to Dec. 6, well, that's what we media types are for. It'll be crazy in that dome if both sides can navigate to Atlanta without another loss for Florida and with Alabama unbeaten. Florida's game at Florida State feels tricky, even though the Gators are clearly superior. A nasty rivalry game on the road against a strong defense has many classic ingredients for an upset.

I'm not calling for the Noles to shake up the title chase just yet. I'm just saying...

Alabama's getting Auburn at home makes the upset chances much lower in the Tide's annual showdown -- even though the Tigers have gotten them six in a row. I know that Mississippi State has beaten Bama two in a row and that the Crimson Tide's offense has not crossed the goal line against the Bulldogs since 2004, but that has become a huge source of embarrassment and a big cause for the Tide this week. They will find the end zone this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. I promise. And more than once.

By the way, do you know how long it has been since a No. 1 team in the AP poll has lost a November home game to a team with a losing record? Well, before most of you were born. A year before I was born, in fact, and I am not feeling real young. In 1961, scrappy 2-4-1 TCU snuck into Austin and shocked the top-ranked Horns. And it has not happened since.

But when Florida and Alabama finally get to their SEC championship game rendezvous, the (likely) top-ranked Tide can again revert back to the "unrespected, underdog" mode. Despite the pollsters' support, the "experts" in Las Vegas would make Florida a solid favorite in a de facto national semifinal game. To be precise, Florida would be about an 8½ point favorite, according to the Wynn sports book.

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While we're on the topic, here are some of their other thoughts on potential matchups for the BCS title game in Miami:

• Alabama would be an underdog against any of the Big 12 teams it could face. Texas Tech or Texas would be rated about a touchdown favorite and Oklahoma would be favored by 8½. USC would be an 11-point pick over the Tide in by far the most lopsided (on paper) potential title game.

• The Trojans, in fact, would be favored over all potential BCS opponents. OU would be a 2½-point underdog to USC, Texas Tech a 4-point dog, and Texas 5½ points. One of the most evenly matched title games would be USC and Florida, with the Gators a 1½-point underdog.

• Florida would be favored against all teams except USC, with Oklahoma versus Florida a near toss-up.

I offer this info not to glorify gambling, of course. I just think it is informative to show how Las Vegas (which leans very heavily on its own computer-rating systems) would handicap these games.

Although I have a big soft spot for Joe Paterno and his efforts to win one more big one, I am not destroyed to see the Nittany Lions removed from the BCS equation. I stood on the field in Columbus and watched them eke out an ugly win over Ohio State. I knew right then that they are not one of the two best teams in the country. Their résumé would have been excellent at 12-0, but I don't think they would have fared well against Florida, the Big 12 champ or USC if they'd met any of them in the BCS title game.

As it is, the Lions may get a chance at the Trojans in Pasadena. That'd be a cool matchup.

If, that is, Oregon State stumbles in one of its final three games. The Beavers have become one of the most fascinating teams to watch down the stretch. This bunch could win all three of its remaining games or lose all three: Cal (Saturday), at Arizona (Nov. 22) and home for the Civil War with Oregon (Nov. 29). Their fate ranges from the Grandaddy of them all to maybe a slot in Las Vegas, El Paso or Seattle. That's a big swing.

If you don't know, Oregon State is the only Pac-10 team controlling its Rose Bowl destiny. The Beavers' September stunner over USC gives them the edge. Can Mike Riley get the Beavs to the promised land after three-plus decades of Rose Bowl futility? It's a great plotline to follow, starting with the visit by the Bears this week. Oregon State may be catching Cal at a good time, following a deflating offensive performance in last week's 17-3 loss to USC.

Weis Watch

It would be idiotic for Notre Dame to fire Charlie Weis this year. Idiotic. Wouldn't make a bit of sense.

Let me say that I have no relationship at all with Weis. I have no stake at all in whether he succeeds of fails at his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Matt Cashore/US PreswireCharlie Weis and the Irish have lost three of their last four games.

I am aware of the negative numbers that can be (and are being) increasingly tossed out to illustrate the subpar performance of his teams. I know that his teams struggle with all opponents with winning records, haven't beaten a ranked opponent in the past seven tries and are 0-2 versus Boston College, running ND's series skid against the Eagles to six years.

I understand that 5-4 and entering a tricky attempt at payback against Navy in Baltimore is not what folks expected. A 7-5 season looks about as good as it can get.

But to pull the plug on Weis, who has recruited effectively, is premature, to put it politely. Tyrone Willingham was fired largely because his recruiting efforts were failing. Weis was bound to pay the price for that in Year 3, often a tough year for a coach inheriting a program coming off poor recruiting classes.

Year 4 is usually better, and this one has been. Hopes of a nine- or 10-win season were legit, but not reaching that goal is not cause for dismissal (and a really pricey buyout, by the way). Reports have that in the eight-figure range!

Weis does not walk around spreading sunshine and making friends. He has, in fact, some enemies among the Notre Dame family of boosters. His prickly personality rubs people the wrong way. As an NFL assistant (or even a head coach), it is not really a problem. As head of the world's most famous football program, lacking a reservoir of goodwill can be a lot more damaging.

There are many waiting and hoping Weis fails. But he has to be given a better chance to succeed first. This talk of pulling the ripchord and starting over next year if the Irish fall to Navy is stupid.

Now, if we are sitting here a year from now, and the Irish are again out of the BCS bowl hunt, that is a different conversation. But Notre Dame is getting players. Weis has been afforded some recruiting advantages his immediate predecessors did not have.

Give Weis more time, but 2009 shapes up as a pretty crucial year for him.

By the way, Notre Dame is one of 20 teams that need just one more win to join the bowl-eligible club. Fifty-one teams now have the required six or more wins. That leaves only 17 more slots to fill!

That's right, in case you forgot, there are a robust 34 postseason games on the books for this season.

It'd be interesting if a few conferences come short of being able to fill their slots. In that case, there will be a couple of 6-6 or 7-5 ACC teams hanging around.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.