Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:41 p.m.
ORLANDO — Two years ago in an early January bowl game only about two hours from home, the Florida Gators held onto their late-season momentum and rode it all the way to a national championship the following season.
From Tampa to Glendale, Ariz.
Now, with the help of some similar momentum, the Gators would like to see if they can make it from Orlando to Miami, site of the 2008 BCS national title game.
It's a long, tough road, and the journey starts today against Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.
"This game is huge for momentum going into the offseason and next season," UF quarterback Tim Tebow said.
It's all about momentum.
Two years ago, a struggling Florida team won its final two games, closing the regular season with a rousing victory over Florida State. The Gators then went on to beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, had one of the best recruiting classes in school history and carried all the momentum into what would become the 2006 national championship season.
"We're indebted to the Outback Bowl," UF coach Urban Meyer said Monday. "They didn't have to take us. A January 1 bowl game and we play Iowa like we did, then we jumped into recruiting and have a great year and a lot of those guys had an impact on the national championship.
"Momentum is everything. It's everything during a game, it's everything during the end of the season. If you're not successful in a bowl game, you have to eat that for six or seven months. We haven't had to do that, so we're going to play as hard as we can."
A fairly imposing momentum-blocker stands in the way. Michigan, with all its history and tradition, and now, with its entire offense intact with the return of star quarterback Chad Henne and All-America tailback Mike Hart.
And then add this into the Wolverine mix: This is the final game for likeable head coach Lloyd Carr, whose players are vowing to try and send their popular coach out a winner.
Florida's late-season momentum will be tested.
"There is going to be a storm we're going to have to deal with in this one," Meyer said. "There's going to be a storm that our players haven't experienced in a while. We have to hang in there.
"After a while, it's execution — blocking and tackling and taking care of your business. It's going to be very emotional in the beginning of the game. We just have to match their emotion and match their intensity. I think we'll do that because our kids are riled up for this one, too."
While the Gators are determined to hold on to their momentum with an eye on 2008, the Wolverines are determined to win for their coach, who is stepping aside after 13 seasons as Michigan's head coach.
"He's our coach," said Hart, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in an injury-interrupted season. "We want to make sure he goes out the right way."
Leading up to the game, Carr has done his best to try to deflect the focus from the fact this is his last game. This game is about the Michigan football team, not him, he has said over and over.
"I want our players to be motivated to win," Carr said. "It can hurt you if you're not concentrating and focusing on the gameplan and all the things that go into being able to win a game.
"I've tried to approach it from that standpoint. What's really important is that our team be ready to play. You can't win unless you have a cohesive team effort, and that's what I've tried to address as we've approached this game."
Unlike Florida, Michigan does not bring much momentum into today's game. The Wolverines ended the regular season with back-to-back losses to Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Ohio State that knocked Michigan out of a possible BCS bowl. And, of course, there were those devastating back-to-back loses at the start of the season to Appalachian State and Oregon, teams that also run the spread offense.
One thing in Michigan's favor is the fact Henne and Hart are back from injuries that crippled the offense late in the season, and the Wolverines are at full strength for one of the rare times this season.
"They've got four guys on that offense that are going to be high, high (NFL) draft picks one day," Meyer said. "We have to tackle No. 20 (Hart) and we can't let No. 86 (star wide receiver Mario Manningham) get behind us. If you do that, you have a chance to compete in this game. If you don't, you won't be in this game."
Meyer also is concerned about Henne, a prototype pocket passer who threw for 1,565 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games and most of a fourth.
One quarterback Meyer isn't worried about is his own. There's been a lot of conversation over the past few weeks about Tebow possibly succumbing to a Heisman hangover in the bowl game, but Meyer doesn't seem concerned.
"Tim really wants to win this bowl game," Meyer said. "His focus is intently on winning this game. There have been zero issues with him.
"I'm sure if he doesn't play well, that will come up, the Heisman jinx. We don't buy into jinxes. We buy into prepared, and he's prepared very well."
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