Tim Tebow made "The Promise" then the Florida Gators struggled against the Arkansas Razorbacks. On the rocky road that served as the Gators detour to a National Championship.
BY FRANZ BEARD
Doom and gloom. Not even Tim Tebow’s "Promise" that Florida would become the hardest working team in all of college football could rescue the Gators from a plunge of eight spots (fourth to 12th) in the polls or from the talking heads at the networks pretty much declaring the dream of a national title all but over. After all, how could you lose to an Ole Miss team that had lost to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt in the weeks prior to the 31-30 upset of the Gators and still be considered championship material?
For three quarters of Florida’s road trip to Arkansas the next weekend, the Gators gave the distinct impression that they might go down as one of the most overrated teams in 2008. Heading into the final quarter in Fayetteville, the Gators held a 17-7 lead on an Arkansas team that had lost 49-14 to Alabama and 52-10 to Texas the previous two weeks. Other than a gift touchdown (16-yard drive) in the second quarter when Brandon James recovered a muffed punt at the Arkansas 16, the Razorbacks were going toe-to-toe with the Gators and seemed poised to spring an upset. Complicating matters for the Gators were an onslaught of penalties (11 through the first three quarters, 12 for the game), most of them on the offensive line.
Maybe it took looking up at the scoreboard and seeing how close the game was or perhaps it was just as simple as deciding enough was enough, but the Gators shook off whatever it was that had them in a funk in the fourth quarter. The Gators only had three fourth quarter possessions and a mere 17 plays, but they were good for 237 yards. Florida scored on a 21-yard Tebow to Percy Harvin pass, a 75-yard run by Chris Rainey and a 48-yard run by Jeff Demps, turning a potential white knuckles finish into a 38-7 blowout win.
The final stat line gives the impression the Gators dominated Arkansas from start to finish. Florida outgained the Razorbacks 514-361 overall, 278-141 on the ground and 236-220 through the air. Unlike the week before when UF fumbled five times (losing three), the Gators won the turnover battle 2-1. After giving up a touchdown on the Razorbacks’ first possession of the second half, the Florida defense allowed Arkansas only 60 yards the rest of the way.
“We struggled and then the second half was the turnaround,” then Florida Head Coach Urban Meyer said.
How the Gators could play so badly against Ole Miss and then so lackadaisical for three quarters against Arkansas the next week is still a mystery to everyone who saw Florida play in 2008. This was a team that finished the season averaging 43.6 points and 445 yards per game while giving up only 12.9 points and 285.3 yards. Florida had it all – offense, defense, special teams and coaching. Yet something was missing against Ole Miss and for most of the Arkansas game.
Rainey disputes any notion that the Gators went into either the Ole Miss or Arkansas games looking past inferior opponents.
“Sometimes you just have a bad game,” recalls Rainey, who ran for 103 yards against Arkansas, the same total as Demps. “I don’t know why we played so bad against Ole Miss. We weren’t too cocky or nothing like that. It’s the SEC and you never forget in the SEC that the other team has good players too but when you can’t run the ball (only 128 yards against Ole Miss) and when you fumble – What was it? Five times? – how you gonna win? In the SEC when you can’t run and you keep fumbling the ball you lose. We didn’t have the big head. Ole Miss just played a good game and we didn’t but it was kind of embarrassing to lose. Even with all our mistakes we still shoulda won the game.”
So what happened the next week against Arkansas? How is it the Gators went from struggling for 45 minutes to superior in what seemed like the blink of an eye?
Rainey has a theory about that.
“We had too many good players to keep playing bad,” he said. “Against Arkansas maybe we were thinking too much about losing to Ole Miss. I think we all got mad at the way we were playing and decided it was time to play like the Gators play.”
Despite the fourth quarter dominance, nobody was all that impressed with a win over Arkansas. The 21-point fourth quarter was mostly attributed to Arkansas running out of gas and Florida’s superior athletes taking over. The Gators moved up one spot to 11th in the national polls. The talk in the SEC was all about 2nd-ranked Alabama and 3rd-ranked LSU over in the West. Georgia’s only loss was by 11 to Alabama so the national pundits were already talking about a rematch in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
The Gators were a slight underdog when LSU came to The Swamp the following weekend. LSU probably would have been favored by 10 or more if the game had been played in Baton Rouge, but when this one was over there was no question that the team Tebow had promised after the Ole Miss loss was beginning to emerge.
Point to the third quarter against LSU as the moment in the season when The Promise started to become reality. After the Gators bolted to a 20-0 lead, LSU roared back with consecutive touchdowns, the second a time-consuming 12-play, 80-yard drive that consumed 6:19. Florida responded with an 8-play, 67-yard touchdown drive to begin a 31-7 onslaught that featured a 52-yard return of an interception by Brandon Spikes. Everybody it seemed got into the act. Tebow threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns while running for a third. Demps gained 129 yards on 10 carries and scored a TD while Rainey rushed for 66 on 11 carries. Percy Harvin caught six passes for 112 yards. After that 80-yard scoring drive, the Florida defense never allowed LSU to have the ball more than five plays.
The 51-21 win over LSU shot the Gators back up to 5th in the polls. In the subsequent six weeks of the regular season, Florida's closet game was their 42-14 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville. The anticipated showdown game against Georgia was a 49-10 laugher. Florida won the SEC East, moved all the way up to #2 nationally to set up a classic SEC Championship Game with #1 Alabama.
The Gators had to play Alabama without Percy Harvin, but it didn’t matter. Florida took charge in the fourth quarter and walked out of Atlanta with a 31-20 win. A month later, the Gators stifled Oklahoma’s nearly point-a-minute offense for a 24-14 national championship victory.
Meyer believes to this day the 2008 Gators should be considered one of the greatest college football teams of all time.
“I think this is a team that had everything from great athletes on both sides of the ball to what I consider the greatest leader I’ve ever seen in college football in Tim Tebow,” Meyer said. “I’ll put that team up against any I’ve seen.”
Rainey won’t disagree with Meyer, but he adds a final thought about the transformation that took place following the loss to Ole Miss and then the sluggish first three quarters against Arkansas.
“We always worked hard, even before Ole Miss and Arkansas,” Rainey said. “We didn’t lose the Ole Miss game because we didn’t work hard enough or practice hard enough but Tebow was right. When we lost we knew how tough it would be to win the national championship. Usually, you lose, you out but we worked hard and kept winning after that. That was one great football team.”