Commentary

Meyer says Gators are better equipped to handle success in 2009

Originally Published: January 9, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- On the morning after winning his second BCS national championship in three years, Florida football coach Urban Meyer couldn't help thinking about what's ahead for the Gators next season.

If a handful of juniors return to Florida for the 2009 season, the Gators might be capable of doing what the school's basketball team recently did -- win back-to-back national championships.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
James Lang/US PresswireUrban Meyer doesn't expect to see a letdown next season from his national champion Gators.

Florida is already halfway there after beating No. 1 Oklahoma 24-14 in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game at Dolphin Stadium on Thursday night.

"We play a tough schedule," Meyer said Friday morning, during a news conference in which he was presented with four national championship trophies. "We play in the Southeastern Conference. We're just going to go back to work. We'll see who comes back. Regardless, it's not going to be like last year."

After winning the 2006 BCS national championship in Meyer's second season, the Gators slipped to a 9-4 record the next year, losing to Michigan 41-35 in the Capital One Bowl.

Meyer said he saw his team's struggles coming, even after the Gators blasted Ohio State 41-14 in the 2006 BCS national championship game.

Meyer said his program is better equipped for sustained success as it enters the 2009 season. "We've got to stay healthy," Meyer said. "But as far as a program, it's not going to be like last year. We could be pretty good."

The Gators will be better if quarterback Tim Tebow decides to return to school for his senior season. Tebow is expected to make his decision in the next few days, possibly during Sunday's celebration in Gainesville, Fla.

Tebow was spectacular against Oklahoma, after recovering from two interceptions he threw in the first half. He ran 22 times for 109 yards and completed 18 of 30 passes for 231 yards with two touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Jerry Lai/US PresswireIf Tim Tebow returns for his senior season, the Gators could be the '09 favorites.

Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who is leaving to become head coach at Mississippi State, said he would be surprised if Tebow forgoes his final college season to enter the NFL draft. "This is going to be a little harder," Meyer said. "There's not much difference between Tim and my son Nathan. I love Tim, and I love his family. It will be a well-educated decision. I'm going to put him in touch with people I trust. The Gator Nation should know that Tim will make the right decision."

Two other Florida juniors -- receiver Percy Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes -- also are considering entering the NFL draft.

Harvin, who was bothered by foot and ankle injuries throughout much of the season, came back from a six-week layoff to play against the Sooners. Harvin ran nine times for 122 yards with one touchdown and caught five passes for 49 yards.

"Right now, he has to be one of the best players in America," Meyer said. "He has to have the best first step. I'd say he played at about 80 percent [against Oklahoma]. I looked at him on the sideline and he kept saying, "I'm ready, Coach." What he did to prepare for that game is what legends are made of."

And if Tebow returns to Florida for one more season, the Gators could be staring at a historical stretch.

If Spikes returns for his senior season, the Gators might have all 11 starters back on defense. Seven sophomores and one freshman started on defense against Oklahoma.

If Tebow and Harvin return, seven starters should be back on offense. Three starters will have to be replaced on the offensive line, and receiver Louis Murphy also is a senior. "I want to make sure this team goes down as one of the greatest in Florida history," Meyer said. "This is one of the greatest groups of young people I've ever been around. Everything they have coming to them they deserve. The way they fought through the last two games epitomizes what college football is about."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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