December 14, 2009

Smith: Football season superlatives

Remember when Florida had won 22 games in a row?

Yeah, I know, it seems so long ago after the comprehensive loss to Alabama in Atlanta and the departure of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and recruiting coordinator/wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales. The Gators can match their all-time record of 13 victories by beating Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl, but Tim Tebow captured the feeling of the Gator Nation after the SEC Championship Game when he said, "this is not how you want to go out."

It's a tribute to Florida's incredible achievements under coach Urban Meyer that 13 wins could be considered an unlucky number.

Here are the highs and lows of a season that started with expectations of a third national championship in four years and ended with the Gators getting pinned under an elephant's ears:

Offensive Player of the Year: Tebow

An easy call. You can get bogged down in the negatives as I did during the season - his indecisiveness in the pocket that led to too many sacks, the pick-sixes against Mississippi State. But Tebow's numbers still were pretty darn good. He is eighth nationally in passing efficiency - one spot ahead of Cincinnati's Tony Pike and 11 spots ahead of Texas' Colt McCoy - completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 2,413 yards with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions while working with a shallow receiving corps. Only five quarterbacks rushed for more than Tebow's 859 yards, and Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt was the only one of the five to play in a BCS conference. Before the Gators fell apart in Atlanta, Tebow led them to the second perfect regular season in school history. Only one of those games was legitimately close - Arkansas, when Tebow led a 68-yard drive for the winning field goal with nine seconds left.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joe Haden

Dig up one of my stories in the offseason, and you'll find a reference to Janoris Jenkins clearly being a better cornerback than Haden. On second thought, don't dig it up. I'm trying to forget about it. While Jenkins was solid this year, Haden was spectacular, beating out linebacker Brandon Spikes for this honor. Haden paced the Gators with four interceptions and nine breakups even thought opponents threw away from him at all costs. He also excelled at run support, making 62 tackles, the third-highest total on the team, and forcing two fumbles. Throw in his three sacks on blitzes, and he was the total package. Some lucky NFL team will be glad to get his combination of speed coverage ability next year.

Game of the Year: Florida 23, Arkansas 20

Returning to The Swamp after an emotional 13-3 win at LSU, the Gators came oh-so-close to extending their inexplicable 10-year streak of losing to at least one SEC West team. Arkansas, statistically the SEC's worst defense, sacked Tebow six times and forced four turnovers while leading most of the way. The Gators went ahead for the first time, 13-10, on Tebow's 77-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Thompson in the third quarter. The Razorbacks responded with a 75-yard scoring strike of their own to go back ahead 20-13 in the fourth quarter but could not hold on to that advantage. Alex Tejada's missed a go-ahead, 38-yard field goal with 3:08 left, setting up Florida's winning drive. This sloppy game hardly was a classic - the Gators dropped several passes, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett missed a few wide open receivers and the SEC office suspended the officiating crew for two weeks after apologizing for a bogus personal-foul call that helped Florida tie the score at 20. But in a year with precious little on-field drama, this one had by far the most.

Best Performance: blowing out Georgia 41-17

The statistics were more lopsided in Florida's 37-10 win over Tallahassee Junior College (er, FSU), but unlike Bowden's boys, the Bulldogs thought they could beat Florida and played hard. They hardly played well, though, as the Gators dominated for all but a brief stretch of the second quarter, snapping out of the offensive doldrums that had limited them to fewer than 30 points in three consecutive games. Tebow threw touchdown passes to Riley Cooper to cap 80- and 92-yard drives the first two times they had the ball. Later, Tebow scored on a 23-yard draw late in the second quarter to give the Gators a 24-10 lead. The defense did the rest, picking off Georgia quarterback Joe Cox three times. Spikes put the bite on Georgia's last hopes with an interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Worst Moment: Tebow's concussion against Kentucky

Florida was enjoying its usual laugher against Kentucky, having taken a 31-0 lead in the first quarter, when emotions changed in an instant. Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham sacked Tebow with a hard hit in the third quarter, and Tebow's head struck teammate Marcus Gilbert's leg on the way down, forcing his neck forward. He lay motionless on the ground for several minutes, threw up on the sidelines after woozily walking off the field and was held in a hospital overnight for observation. The Gators had a fortuitous open date before their next game against LSU, and the debate about players returning too soon from concussions raged as the entire nation wondered whether Tebow would be available.

Best Moment: Tebow's 8-yard scramble against LSU

This was the precise moment when everyone knew Tebow would be Tebow again. Cleared by UF's medical staff to play, he looked hesitant on his first two drives, rushing twice for zero yards in game plan designed to limit his number of hits. His instincts took over on the first play of the Gators' next possession. Scrambling this way and that when his protection broke down, he finally cut back toward the middle and nailed a defender with his shoulder at the end of an 8-yard gain. It was vintage Tebow, and the drive ended with him converting a third-and-2 with a 3-yard run and throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cooper that put Florida ahead for good, 10-3.

Biggest Surprise: The defensive collapse against Alabama

If Alabama had won the SEC Championship Game by shutting down Florida's offense, no one would have been shocked. The Gators had been dull offensively for most of the year and had not faced a defense the caliber of Alabama's. But the stunning ease with which 'Bama battered UF's defense came out of nowhere. The Crimson Tide rolled up 490 total yards (previous high vs. UF: 357), 251 rushing yards (previous high vs. UF: 133) and rushed for three touchdowns, matching the total the Gators had allowed in their first 12 games. The Gators struggled to get off blocks and missed tackles when they were in position to make a play. Running back Mark Ingram (28 carries, 113 yards) and quarterback Greg McElroy (12 completions, 239 yards) pretty much did whatever they wanted.

Most Disappointing Moment (player): Carlos Dunlap's arrest

OK, maybe the collapse had a definable origin. The night before Florida's biggest practice for its biggest game, Dunlap, UF's sacks leader, was arrested at 3:25 a.m. and charged with DUI after police found him asleep at a stoplight in his car. No need to rehash all the details again, but it was hard not to draw conclusions about the team's focus when it was revealed that numerous players were partying late at night. Dunlap was suspended, and you'd have to suspend disbelief to think the Gators approached the SEC Championship Game with the same focus as the Crimson Tide.

Most Disappointing Stat: Brandon James' 7.4 average per punt return

James entered the season as arguably the most explosive punt returner in college football, averaging 13.4 yards with four touchdowns in 84 career attempts. By the end of the year, he inarguably was not even close. His longest return, a 49-yarder against South Carolina, did not lead to any points. His second-longest return was a 20-yarder against Georgia. Opponents tried to kick away from him, but those numbers are incredibly low. What happened?

Strangest Stat: Florida recovered three fumbles all year

The Gators, who ranked among the nation's top five in almost every defensive category, forced a respectable 18 fumbles but recovered only three - two against Troy and one vs. South Carolina. Of the 120 bowl subdivision teams, only Georgia recovered fewer (two). Cincinnati tied Florida for 118th, so look for a fumble-recovery free game in the Sugar Bowl.

Most Telling Stat: Tebow's percentage of carries

Tebow rushed 203 times this year, counting sacks. Tailbacks Jeffrey Demps, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Moody, Mike Gillislee, Brandon James, Christopher Scott and Vince Brown combined for 293. In the SEC Championship Game, Tebow rushed 10 times. Demps, Rainey and James combined for four.

Worst Announcer: Verne Lundquist, CBS

A year of comical mis-calls in the booth reached a crescendo in the SEC Championship Game from CBS' venerable play-by-play man. Here's this small sample of his work in the first half.

1) Verne after a McElroy sack: "Was it a pass or a fumble?"

McElroy still has the ball in his hand.

2) Verne after an Alabama extra point clanged off the upright and Florida tried to run with the loose ball: "It's live!!"

A kick that bounces off the upright has never, ever been live in college football.

3) Verne after Aaron Hernandez dropped a pass while being hit and the ball ricocheted to Thompson, who also dropped it: "They tried the lateral!"

Someone please get this guy out of the booth.

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