Tim Tebow was hoping to cap one of the most accomplished college football careers in history with an undefeated season. Brian Kelly had a chance at one, and threw it away.
In a BCS game that may not be for the national championship but is second-to-none in regard to intrigue and subplots, Tebow's Florida Gators head to the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day to take on an abandoned yet unblemished Cincinnati team feeling cheated -- in more ways than one.
Less than a week after leading the Bearcats to a wild 45-44 win over Pittsburgh to complete a 12-0 regular season and give them a Big East title -- and days after a joint teleconference with Gators coach Urban Meyer hyping the matchup in New Orleans -- Kelly jolted the Queen City for the greener pastures of Notre Dame.
Left in his wake was confusion and anger. The fourth-ranked team in the country, on the verge of its most important game ever, was forced to hastily elevate coordinator Jeff Quinn to interim coach, and, days later, agreed to a five-year deal with Central Michigan coach Butch Jones.
"We weren't giving him a round of applause or anything," tight end Ben Guidugli said of Kelly, who made the announcement following the team's annual banquet. "It's like somebody turned their back on us. We brought this whole thing this far. We've come this far. To have someone walk out now is disappointing."
Kelly countered by saying, "You would always want it to end with the best story. The best story would be that I get to coach in the Sugar Bowl. But I'm at Notre Dame now, and this is where I want to be."
Ironically enough, Kelly's job going forward will be to get the Irish where the Bearcats are now: ending a season in the national title conversation, going into a new year without a loss and playing in a big-money bowl for high stakes. Yet even a resume like that wasn't enough for an upstart like Cincinnati -- which began the season outside the Top 25, while Florida was a near-unanimous No. 1 -- to get a shot at a national title.
It didn't miss by much, though.
Ultimately finishing third in the BCS standings, the Bearcats were potentially on their way to a championship game for a few fleeting moments. However, No. 2 Texas benefited from a replay review at the end of its Big 12 championship game to put 1 second back on the clock, and the Longhorns connected on a 46-yard field goal as time expired to come away with a 13-12 win and a ticket to Pasadena to take on top-ranked Alabama.
Despite the hiring of Jones, Quinn will still be charged with the responsibility of rallying his players from a whirlwind lead-up to this game. An assistant of Kelly's for the past 22 years, Quinn oversaw the Bearcats signature no-huddle spread offense which was responsible for 7.28 yards per play -- second in the nation to Nevada (7.48), but against a much tougher schedule.
"Our focus is to congratulate them for being 12-0 and getting them ready for the Sugar Bowl," Quinn said. "We've circled the wagons. Sometimes, it feels like you're drinking water through a fire hose. ... The message isn't changing. It's just coming from a different voice."
That voice will still be Quinn's, although Jones will be calling the shots next season and beyond.
"I'm going to be around," Jones said. "But I'm going to be in the background. I think it's all about them finishing what they started."
Dealing with such distractions before taking on any team would be a challenge. But faced with such obstacles prior to a matchup against college football's marquee player and defending national champion may seem downright unfair.
Tebow will close the curtain on one of the greatest careers college football has ever seen, but he does so coming off a disappointing loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game, squashing any chance of a fairy-tale ending and halting the fifth-ranked Gators' school-record and nation-best 22-game winning streak.
The accomplishments of college football's poster boy are overwhelming: one Heisman Trophy, two national titles, 56 rushing touchdowns, 85 passing scores, 2,896 rushing yards and 8,803 passing yards. But there's little doubt he'd sacrifice those gaudy numbers for a rematch against Alabama.
"I don't think you're over a loss. It's going to hurt, probably will hurt for a while," Tebow said. "I think we're over the point where we're feeling sorry for ourselves and we're getting back to working, working hard and just getting better."
The Gators are no stranger to a little coaching shakeup either. Within a week of that defeat, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong announced he will take the coaching job at Louisville next season and receivers coach Billy Gonzales surprisingly resigned to become passing game coordinator at rival LSU. But through disappointment and defection, Meyer -- coincidentally enough, a Cincinnati alum -- promised Florida (12-1) will be driven to end the Tebow era in fitting fashion.
"Our legacy is going to be depending on how we finish this season," Meyer said of a senior class that has the most wins (47) in SEC history. "We've watched them play, they're on TV all the time. Then you see some of the scores and the way they throw the ball around. The Gators will be highly motivated to play this game."
The Bearcats can throw the ball around with the best of them, and the matchup between their potent offense and Meyer's stalwart defense will go a long way in determining the game's outcome. Led by quarterback Tony Pike and playmaking receiver Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati ranks first in the country in passing efficiency and sixth in total offense.
Traditionally renowned for its offense, Florida has been equally adept, if not stronger, on the other side of the ball, where it ranks third in pass defense and fourth in total defense. But even in the mighty SEC, the Gators may have never seen an offense like this.
Florida receiver David Nelson is looking forward to eclipsing the numbers Pike, Gilyard and Co. may put up.
"We're hungry," said Nelson. "We're hungry to get back out there. I have a sour taste in my mouth and the only way to fix that is to win the next game. So we have to be ready to go and we're excited about it."