Florida wins, but fails to impress
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With No. 1 Florida about to attempt the winning field goal with 13 seconds to play in Saturday's game against Arkansas, Gators quarterback Tim Tebow stood on the sideline holding backup quarterback John Brantley's hand.
Tebow stood quietly with his eyes closed.
"I was praying," Tebow said afterward. "I was holding Brantley's hand and saying, 'Tell me if it's good. Tell me if it's good.' I couldn't watch. Soon after, I heard the crowd and he didn't have to tell me it was good."
As sophomore Caleb Sturgis' 27-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with nine seconds to play to give the Gators a 23-20 victory over the Razorbacks, most of the sellout crowd of 90,508 fans breathed a sigh of relief.
But the Gators' three-point victory over a 25-point underdog also should have been an eye-opener for them.
Yes, Florida is the defending BCS national champion. Yes, the Gators are 6-0 and winners of 16 games in a row, the longest such streak in the country and a school record.
But Florida isn't the best team in the country.
In fact, the Gators aren't even the best team in their own conference. At the halfway point of the 2009 season, Florida isn't as good as No. 2 Alabama, the defending SEC West champion. On Saturday night, Bama took care of No. 22 South Carolina, 20-6.
The Crimson Tide demolished the Razorbacks 35-7 on Sept. 26. The Gators beat Arkansas by a field goal and won only after the Hogs missed two field goals in the second half.
"We're not playing great football right now," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "In fact, there are times we don't look good at all."
The Crimson Tide went 12-0 in the regular season in 2008, before losing to the Gators 31-20 in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Since the end of last season, Alabama has improved and Florida hasn't.
Over the past four seasons, Florida rarely played as bad it did during the first half against Arkansas. The Gators missed a 37-yard field goal on their first possession. Then Tebow was hit from behind -- one of the Hogs' six sacks in the game -- and lost a fumble.
Florida lost three fumbles and went 1-for-4 in the red zone in the first half. Somehow, the Hogs only held a 10-3 lead.
"It was probably the worst first half we've ever played," Meyer said.
The beginning of the second half wasn't much better. Florida drove inside Arkansas' 25-yard line, but had to settle for a 51-yard field goal, after Tebow was sacked for a 13-yard loss on third-and-9.
The Gators punted on their next drive, and then speedy tailback Chris Rainey fumbled after catching a screen pass. Rainey might have scored if he hadn't had the ball kicked out of his hands.
"It was a game where we didn't play up to our potential and did things we usually don't do," Tebow said. "It's not typical of us to turn the ball over and not capitalize in the red zone."
It was an all-too-familiar feeling for the Gators. It reminded many of them of last season's 31-30 loss to Ole Miss at home, in which the Gators lost three fumbles and went 1-for-11 on third down.
"I was like, 'This can't happen two years in a row,'" Florida offensive tackle Carl Johnson said. "It happened last year, and I didn't want it to happen again."
Last season, the Gators used the Ole Miss loss to galvanize them. Tebow made his much-celebrated speech afterward -- his words are now bronzed on a plaque that hangs outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium -- and Florida didn't lose again. After coming from behind to beat Alabama in the SEC championship game, the Gators beat No. 1 Oklahoma 24-14 in the 2009 BCS Championship Game to win their second national title in three seasons.
This Florida team might get better before season's end, but right now it doesn't seem as talented -- and not nearly as explosive -- as the school's recent championship teams. The offense struggles to run the football unless Tebow is doing it, and there is hardly any threat of a down-field passing game.
Against Arkansas, Tebow carried the ball 27 times for 69 yards. His teammates carried the ball 19 times, and no other Florida player ran more than nine times.
Sophomore receiver Deonte Thompson, who was supposed to help replace departed star Percy Harvin, finally broke through with a 77-yard touchdown catch. Arkansas' secondary blew coverage on the play.
"I don't think we are on the same planet as we were last year statistically," Meyer said. "I think about that, but then again, it's a whole different year and a whole different schedule. I'm not pleased with where [we] are at, but I understand the game and what we need to do to get better."
Even Florida's much-celebrated defense, which came into the game having allowed only one touchdown pass in the first five games, finally showed some cracks against the Hogs. Playing without star linebacker Brandon Spikes, who left early in the first quarter with a groin injury, the Gators gave up 357 yards of offense.
"We need some tackling drills after some of those runs," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said.
Unless Florida's offense gets better in a hurry, its defense might have to carry it to the SEC championship game.
"Everybody is used to explosive, quick Florida," Johnson said. "This year, we're just a slower, grinding team. Every gain is not going to be a 60-yard takeoff and an 80-yard takeoff. Sometimes, it's the 3- and 4-yard gains that win games."
At least that's one thing the Gators are still doing well -- they're still winning games.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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