Upstart Arkansas, comeback Gators face off
ATLANTA -- Barring a miracle, Florida won't get to play for the national championship this season, even if the No. 4 Gators beat No. 8 Arkansas in Saturday night's SEC championship game in the Georgia Dome.
Yet the Gators still have plenty of motivation. After winning four of the first five SEC championship games from 1992 to 1996 under coach Steve Spurrier, Florida has won just one title in the nine seasons since (in 2000, with a 28-6 victory over Auburn). The Gators haven't played in the Georgia Dome in six seasons, after Georgia and Tennessee moved ahead of them in the rugged SEC East.
That's what having Ron Zook on the sidelines for three seasons does to a program.
"We were in the first five of them and then we hit a dry spell, two of the last nine," Florida coach Urban Meyer said earlier this week. "Georgia and Tennessee beat us. They were going to the championship game, we were not. You can paint that picture however you want to paint it, but we were third in the SEC East the last nine years. We have a lot of work to do to get back to where we need to be."
Beating upstart Arkansas is Florida's first step in restoring its place among the country's top programs. The Gators and Razorbacks played in the 1995 SEC championship game, which Florida won 34-3. The Gators won their only national championship the following season under Spurrier.
"Our players and our staff are not going to take this lightly," Meyer said. "This is a great honor and we are going to represent the East the right way. How do you do that? You get your team ready to go. You don't worry about all the other issues, and you just get out there and play your best football."
The Gators (11-1) fell behind USC and Michigan in the national championship race because they haven't played their best football in more than a month. Florida is the SEC's most-penalized team -- with 25 more penalties than the next closest team -- and had 22 turnovers, tied for fourth-most in the league. The Gators were 10th in the league in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 28 of 44 drives inside opponents' 20-yard line. And they're the country's worst team when it comes to kicking, missing three of every four field-goal tries.
Still, Florida faced one of the country's toughest schedules and kept winning. The Gators climbed the national rankings after winning 21-20 at Tennessee on Sept. 16 and beating LSU 23-10 in Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 7.
Since then, though, Florida lost at Auburn and largely struggled against what was perceived to be lesser competition. A week after beating LSU, the Gators lost at Auburn 27-17 on Oct. 14. The Gators blew a 17-8 lead, and the Tigers scored on a safety, blocked punt return and fumble return. Two weeks later, Florida struggled to put away a Georgia team that had just lost to Vanderbilt. The Gators took a 21-0 lead in the opening seconds of the second half, but only mustered a 21-14 victory, even after the struggling Bulldogs (who also nearly lost to Mississippi State) had five turnovers.
The next two weeks weren't much better for Florida. The Gators led Vanderbilt 25-6, but surrendered two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and didn't secure a 25-19 victory until they recovered an onside kick with just over two minutes to play. The following week against South Carolina, the Gators won 17-16 only after blocking an extra-point attempt and two field goals, including a 48-yarder that would have won the game for the Gamecocks as time expired.
Then last week at rival Florida State, the Gators were winning so ugly that Meyer considered trying to score another touchdown after Florida took over at the FSU 8 with 58 seconds to go. Meyer thought a two-touchdown victory would be more impressive to poll voters than his team's 21-14 win over the 6-6 Seminoles. In the end, the Gators took a knee and got the heck out of town with a tough victory.
The Gators can't afford another bad quarter against the Razorbacks (10-2), who had won 10 games in a row before losing to LSU 31-26 in Little Rock, Ark., in their last regular-season game. The Hogs are seeking their first SEC championship since joining the league in 1992. Along with its 31-point loss to Florida in the 1995 title game, Arkansas was defeated by Georgia 30-3 in 2002.
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt believes the Hogs are better armed this time around. Sophomore tailback Darren McFadden has 1,485 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns and might be among the Heisman Trophy finalists. Another tailback, sophomore Felix Jones, is only 39 yards shy of running for 1,000 this season. Junior split end Marcus Monk has caught 46 passes for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Hogs lead the SEC -- and rank fourth in Division I-A -- in rushing, with 236.2 yards per game. The Gators rank fourth in the country in run defense, yielding only 69.7 yards per game. Florida hopes to slow down McFadden and Jones and make sophomore quarterback Casey Dick beat them.
Dick has completed only 32 percent of his passes in the last two games. The Gators had 29 sacks and an SEC-high 17 interceptions this season.
"It's a great opportunity," Nutt said. "You are playing for a title, an outright title. We came in through the front door. We won the Western Division outright. The first time we went to Atlanta [in 2002], I felt like we snuck in through the back door a little bit. We are happy to be going to Atlanta, but we are also going with a purpose."
The Gators also have a purpose: winning their first SEC title in six seasons, a drought that seems like an eternity for a program that won them so frequently under Spurrier.
"It would be really special for us to win the SEC championship," Florida receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "It's been a while since we've done that. I think it will put a cap to a good season. We will be able to go to a big bowl game, which we haven't done in a while around here, too."
And it would be a fitting legacy for Gators quarterback Chris Leak. He's the school's all-time leader in most passing statistics, but has so far failed to win a championship, the only accomplishment that really matters at a school like Florida.
"This is it," Leak said. "That's why you come to Florida, to play for an SEC title. That's what we have expected out of ourselves. It makes you proud that you have an opportunity to go up there and have a chance at a championship."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.