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Mullen recounts title game vs. Oklahoma, Tebow’s motivation

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow talks to outgoing offensive coordinator Dan Mullen during practice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Jan. 4, 2008, before facing Oklahoma for the national title.

In their first Cotton Bowl appearance Wednesday, Florida will face Oklahoma for just the second time in the history of the two storied programs.

The No. 7 Gators (8-3) and No. 6 Sooners (8-2) are once again matched up in the postseason, and their first meeting came in the 2009 FedEx BCS National Championship Game. UF coach Dan Mullen had just been hired by Mississippi State, but was pulling double duty as Florida’s offensive coordinator. 

“I know it was a crazy time for me because I was the head coach at Mississippi State and then came back to call the game as the coordinator for Florida,” Mullen said. “I don't know if I've been more exhausted. Maybe this year is more exhausting with everything we've been through. 

“But you know what? I do remember that game being a big-time game full of talent. ... I think guys that are still scattered all over the NFL with great players.”

The OU and UF rosters from that game produced a total of nine first-round draft picks, nine Pro Bowl selections and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners. Gators quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the award in 2007, but Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford took it home the following year to keep Tebow from repeating.

“I know he (Tebow) probably doesn’t admit it,” Mullen said, “but there was some motivation there that he didn’t win it and the quarterback on the other team did in that 2008 game. I don’t know if Tim admits to that, but having somebody that spends quite a bit of time with him leading into that stuff, I think there was a little bit of extra drive inside of him.”

Florida’s defense also had some extra motivation going into the title game. The Sooners boasted the highest-scoring offense in NCAA history (702 points) and became the first team to score 60 or more points in five consecutive weeks. 

Oklahoma had two possessions inside the five-yard line thwarted by the Gators: a stop on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter, and Bradford’s interception at the 3-yard line with six seconds to play in the first half.

“I think they'd averaged (54) points a game, but it came to at the very end the ability to play defense,” Mullen said. “The Florida defense came up pretty big. I remember the big goal-line stand and the turnover at the goal line to stop them.”

UF star receiver Percy Harvin battled back from an ankle injury that he later stated was a hairline fracture. He still went off on the Sooners at “90 percent” healthy, carrying the ball nine times for 122 yards and a touchdown and catching five passes for 49 yards.

Harvin broke a 7-7 tie with his two-yard score in the third quarter. Tebow threw the game-winning TD late in the fourth and was named the offensive MVP with 340 yards of total offense (109 rushing) and two passing scores in Florida’s 24-14 win. 

“Percy Harvin coming off an injury, I think he only could play for about three quarters but put up huge numbers for those first three quarters,” Mullen said. “And then Tim Tebow carried the team home in the fourth quarter, did a little jump pass to win the game. 

“So, it was pretty special. For me it was a special moment. I got to run down the field, hold the trophy for about 30 seconds, get a picture with my wife with the trophy and get on the plane and head to Starkville, Mississippi.”

The Gators’ 2008 national championship was the third of seven straight titles for the SEC. Mullen believes that victory against No. 1 Oklahoma and its high-scoring offense helped elevate the league’s status as the best conference in the country. 

“If you really go back to the 2006 national championship here at Florida, we were able to win that game as such massive underdogs,” Mullen said. “LSU coming back the next year and winning I think kind of started to build, but that 2008 was. 

“I do think it really goes back to that. I think 2006 started it, but that 2008 year where it was Florida and Alabama as 1 and 2 going into the Championship Game, it kind of started this trend where it was almost like an SEC Championship Game became the first playoff.”

UF has played for four SEC titles since that 2008 game, losing to Alabama each time. Oklahoma, meanwhile, has won six straight Big 12 titles and four under coach Lincoln Riley. 

However, the Sooners are 0-4 in College Football Playoff appearances since their last shot at a national championship. Mullen was asked how much they’ve changed since he faced them. 

“Last time we played them in 2008, they were an explosive offense,” Mullen said. “I will be brutally honest with you, offensively obviously they are different. Kevin Wilson was calling plays back then. They are up tempo and similar styles. They are schematically different from Bob (Stoops) running the defense to now. 

“Lincoln took over for Bob a couple of years ago. I think they’ve been a team that’s always had a lot of talented defensive players. … The similarities: they are running a premier program in the country. They have great, talented players. You see the guys, they have great pride in wearing that uniform and the standard that it looks like they play with. And so, those similarities are all still there.”

Wednesday

What: Cotton Bowl

Who: Florida (8-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-2)

When: 8 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850