Ole Miss loss 'a blessing'

UF quarterback Tim Tebow walks off the field dejected after the loss to Ole Miss.

Brandon Kruse/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 1:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 1:40 p.m.

MIAMI On a grim late afternoon back on Sept. 27, Florida's championship dreams seemed to evaporate with a numbing upset loss to Ole Miss in The Swamp. Then, about 45 minutes after the game, a tearful Tim Tebow walked up to the postgame podium and delivered an emotional promise that uplifted the Gator Nation, giving it hope in the darkest hour of the season.

Tebow, struggling to get his words out, vowed that no one would work harder or play harder than him and the Gators for the rest of the season. Ten consecutive wins and a national championship later, many are predicting that Tebow's speech will go down as one of the greatest in college football history, right up there with Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper."

When Tebow made his promise it seemed plausible that the Gators would play with passion the rest of the way. But win a national championship? It seemed unlikely at the time, but as we found out over the course of the season that Tebow is a remarkable quarterback and this is a special Florida team that simply refused to lose.

"The loss to Ole Miss turned out to be a blessing," junior middle linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "It turned around our season."

Before the loss, the Gators (and even Tebow) seemed be sort of going through the motions in the first three games against Hawaii, Miami and Tennessee. Tebow wasn't running the ball as often as he did the season before, the offense was sputtering around and UF seemed to be playing with a minimum of passion. The Gators did not resemble the team everyone was expecting to see heading into the season.

Then the loss turned it all around.

Once the Gators started playing with great passion, playing like every game was their last, they got on a roll that now is considered the greatest in school history.

The week after the Ole Miss loss, UF overcame a slow start and exploded with a 21-point third quarter to beat Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Gators found two new important weapons in the game speedy tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, who brought a new dimension to the spread, the home-run threat out of the backfield.

A week later, the Gators had a statement game, routing undefeated and fourth-ranked LSU 51-21 to re-emerge as a serious contender again in the SEC race.

Following an open date, Florida's dominance continued with one of the best overall team performances of the season in a 63-5 rout of Kentucky, which came into the game with one of the strongest defenses in the SEC. The Gators set the tone with two blocked punts that led to two touchdowns in the game's opening minutes.

Florida was 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC heading into a showdown game with Georgia in Jacksonville. The Gators felt the Bulldogs had disrespected them a year earlier with their team celebration in the end zone in UGA's victory. The UF players downplayed the revenge factor early in the week, but after overwhelming the Bulldogs 49-10, the Gators admitted the 'Dog celebration had been the source of great motivation throughout the season and the week leading up to the game.

Over the next three Saturdays, the rejuvenated Gators beat Vanderbilt, South Carolina and The Citadel by a combined score of 168-39. The most crowd-pleasing victory of the three was the 56-6 rout of South Carolina and former coach Steve Spurrier, who gave props to UF after the game, saying he thought this Florida team was better than the one that won the 2006 national championship.

In yet another defining moment in the season, the Gators not only survived but thrived in the wet and muddy conditions at Doak Campbell Stadium to easily dispose of arch rival Florida State 45-15 on Nov. 29. UF overmatched the Seminoles even though star wide receiver Percy Harvin left the game in the first half with a high ankle sprain.

A week later, the Gators headed to Atlanta to face No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Not only was this game for a conference title, the consensus among the experts and analysts was that the winner would punch a ticket to the BCS Championship Game in Miami.

During the week, one of the popular themes in the media was that this game would feature Alabama's toughness vs. Florida's finesse. The Gators, who pride themselves on their toughness, found motivation in this.

And in the fourth quarter, UF's toughness took over the game. Going into the fourth quarter trailing 20-17, the Gators physically dominated the Tide the rest of the way. The offense pounded out two touchdown drives and the defense came up with a critical sack and an interception by cornerback Joe Haden and the Gators celebrated their third SEC title in three years with a 31-20 victory.

While Florida was beating Alabama, Oklahoma was taking care of business in the Big 12 title game against Missouri, setting up the UF-OU matchup in the national title game in Dolphin Stadium.

Similar to the SEC title game, the Gators had to tough this one out, taking the lead early in the fourth quarter with a 27-yard field goal by Jonathan Phillips and then clinching the victory with a dramatic 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to give UF the 24-14 victory and the school's second national title in three years and third overall.

The Florida defense held the nation's most explosive offense to only 14 points and 383 total yards and came up with two interceptions, the second on a spectacular theft by strong safety Ahmad Black in the fourth quarter. Following Black's pick, Tebow led the Gators (13-1) on the final TD drive.

Tebow finished it off with a jump pass to wide receiver David Nelson.

Appropriate, because he started it all with his emotional postgame promise on Sept. 27.

"This is one of the greatest groups of young people I've ever been around," UF coach Urban Meyer said of the resilient Gators. "Everything they have coming, they deserve it. They fought through adversity. My heart is out to our players. Our coaching staff feels the same way."

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