2006 Season Preview (Game Nine): Florida

I begin by begging your pardon for my long delay in providing this, my preview of the Florida Gators. While I know many of you have awaited this breakdown eagerly, I am sure you can understand that I did not want to give anything less than my best effort to analyzing what almost all of us would agree is the most important game in the Eastern Division race.

If you haven't taken the time to peruse them already, please feel free to take a look at my previously published previews of Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State.

From the outset, I'd like to point out that neutral observers have noted that the Gators' helmets are lame. (Photograph from Fan Hut.)

The Game

Georgia v. Florida
Alltel Stadium
Saturday, October 28

The Opponent

Back when Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech perennially were the last three opponents on the Bulldogs' schedule, we used to refer to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party as the beginning of "Hate Season." Now, it marks the beginning of Georgia's run through longstanding S.E.C. foes Florida and Auburn, to whom I refer collectively as "the Stalwarts in Orange and Blue" . . . or "S.O.B.s" for short.

We in Bulldog Nation are all too familiar with the hated Gators, who have gone 14-2 against the Red and Black in the last 16 seasons, following a period of similar Georgia dominance in which the 'Dawgs went 13-3 against the Orange and Blue in the 16 seasons before that.

The Gators' 7-1 run from 1990 to 1997, while producing the same record against the Bulldogs, is fundamentally distinguishable from their 7-1 run from 1998 to 2005, as the early Steve Spurrier years produced consistent blowouts while more recent meetings by the St. John's River have been far more competitive. The last four series meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less and none of the last six games in Jacksonville have been won by a margin larger than two touchdowns.

The game once again will take place at the neutral site in the Gateway City, which has been home to the Georgia-Florida game in all but three of the years since 1933 . . . coincidentally, the year the Southeastern Conference was founded. Apart from a single missed meeting during the Second World War, the series between what are now S.E.C. East rivals has been played every year since 1926.

A Brief History of the University of Florida

Public funding for higher education in the Sunshine State began in January 1853 when Florida Governor Thomas Brown signed the bill approving such measures.

After signing the bill that made the existence of the University of Florida possible, he'd better have a great year.

The institution in Gainesville began its existence a little under 125 years ago and a little over 50 miles from its present location. The future university then known as the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College began holding classes in Lake City, Fla., in 1884 . . . some 99 years following the chartering of the University of Georgia.

The Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College, which was the state's first land-grant institution, was originally intended to be established in Gainesville, but the city reportedly could not fulfill its financial obligations, so the site was to be moved to Eau Gallie. Politics intervened, however, and the college wound up in Lake City instead.

Although the school in Lake City initially was known as "F.A.C.," the college's president, Dr. T.H. Taliaferro, began referring to the institution as "the University of Florida" in 1903. The moniker stuck and newspapers began referring to F.A.C. by that new name. The following year, Dr. Taliaferro was succeeded as president of the University of Florida by Andrew Sledd.

Shortly thereafter, the Sunshine State's system of higher education was restructured at the urging of Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. In May 1905, the state legislature passed the Buckman Bill, which consolidated the state-sponsored post-secondary institutions into four colleges, which were segregated by race, sex, and disability. Four then-existing institutions---F.A.C., the East Florida Seminary, South Florida Military College, and the St. Petersburg Normal and Industrual School---were to be combined to form the school for white men.

If South Carolina has "the Fighting Gamecocks" and L.S.U. has "the Fighting Tigers," shouldn't the Florida football team be nicknamed "the Fighting Democrats," in honor of Governor Broward? (Image from University Press of Florida.)

Since the school for white men was to be the flagship college in the state, a political battle erupted between the University of Florida in Lake City and the East Florida Seminary in Gainesville. Each college town wanted the consolidated college to be located on its local campus, so much so that Gainesville offered not just money and land, but also a promise to "furnish water to the university without charge."

The East Florida Seminary had been established in 1853, shortly following Governor Brown's signing of the bill approving the public funding of universities in the state. E.F.S. initially had been located in Ocala, but, after the War Between the States closed the college, it reopened in 1866 in its new home, Gainesville.

In July 1905, a close vote of the Florida Board of Control decided that the merging of the smaller institutions would take place at the site of the East Florida Seminary but would use the name by which F.A.C. had come to be known. Beginning in 1906, the institution of higher education for white men in the Sunshine State would be the University of Florida in Gainesville. Andrew Sledd, who had been named president of F.A.C. in Lake City in 1904, was to become the president of the consolidated University of Florida in 1905.

Today, 101 years later, the University of Florida's website proclaims that the institution is "The Foundation for The Gator Nation." The 2,000-acre Gainesville campus is home to over 900 buildings, "including 170 with classrooms."

Only 18.9 per cent of the buildings on campus contain classrooms? Sounds like Thomas Petee's kind of place! (Photograph from Auburn University.)

U.F. is home to the world's largest citrus research center and, in the last 40 years, its law school has produced more A.B.A. presidents than any other U.S. law school. Speaking as a lawyer who does not claim membership in the American Bar Association, I don't know that I'd brag about that last point.

Florida's enrollment is in the vicinity of 50,000, giving the university in Gainesville one of the five largest student bodies in the United States.

A Brief History of Gator Football

This is a matter of some dispute.

As recounted by Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen in The Gators: A Story of Florida Football and by Cale Conley in War Between the States, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College played its first intercollegiate football game in 1901. When Dr. Taliaferro started referring to F.A.C. as "the University of Florida" during the 1903 football season, the Lake City school began to be referred to by that nomenclature in newspaper reports of the team's games.

Because F.A.C. was known as "the University of Florida" prior to the merger and the move to Gainesville, McEwen counts F.A.C.'s football team as the forerunner of the latter-day Gators. For example, the famous Tampa sports editor writes of the 1902 contest between Lake City's F.A.C. and Tallahassee's Florida State College:

That game began the fierce rivalry between the University of Florida and Florida State University . . . [which] continued unabated through the years except for a period when Florida State became Florida State College for Women and abandoned football.

McEwen considered the name change from F.A.C. to U.F. significant, pointing to the first full football season using the new nomenclature as a watershed moment for the program:
The year 1904 was a turning point in Florida football history, not in terms of victories, for there were none. But a reorganization of the athletic club assured a smooth-operating football program for the University.

The 1904 Florida squad was the first such team to take on Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia. The printed football schedules appearing in The Macon News in 1904 showed the following for the Plainsmen and the Bulldogs, respectively: "October 3---University of Florida at Auburn" and "October 15---University of Florida in Macon."

Although the consolidation of the state system of higher education merged the Lake City school with the location of the East Florida Seminary, the Gator faithful take issue with the position advocated by McEwen. In their estimation, what we now know as the University of Florida did not begin playing football until 1906, when the college's name and its Gainesville location were united.

I suspect the fact that Florida lost to Georgia by a 52-0 margin in Macon in 1904 has something to do with Gator fans' insistence upon disowning what the legendary McEwen unmistakably identified as U.F. teams.

Robert Edwards gaining 124 rushing yards and scoring four touchdowns? That happened, too.

It goes without saying that the Gators' claim that 2006 marks the centennial of Florida football is sheer nonsense. Since the inception of state-sponsored higher education in the Sunshine State, colleges changed locations without fundamentally altering their character.

The East Florida Seminary began at Ocala, then moved to Gainesville . . . but it remained the East Florida Seminary. The Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College was to be located in Gainesville, then in Eau Gallie, but it wound up in Lake City . . . all without changing F.A.C.'s nature. The consolidation of four colleges into a single university did not affect the fact that the University of Florida remained the University of Florida, despite its having been relocated and combined with other institutions.

This obvious reality is underscored by the fact that, when what had come to be known as "the University of Florida" was moved from Lake City to Gainesville (which originally had been intended to be its location in the first place), the same president, Andrew Sledd, moved with U.F. from one college town to the next while retaining his same position.

Tom McEwen, a Floridian newspaper editor who literally wrote the book on Gator football, recognized the unmistakable truth that the football tradition that began in Lake City in 1901 moved to Gainesville along with the rest of the University of Florida five years later.

After that initial controversy, the Gators settled into a longstanding tradition of fielding good teams yet failing to win championships. It was not until 1991 that Florida captured an officially recognized Southeastern Conference title, although signage in the Swamp euphemistically notes that the Gators finished "first in the S.E.C." in 1984, 1985, and 1990, when N.C.A.A. sanctions prohibited them from being declared champions.

Throughout the 1990s, of course, the Gators went on a tear, terrorizing S.E.C. opponents with the "Fun 'n' Gun" and finishing atop the league standings seven times under the brash direction of favorite son Steve Spurrier. The former Florida Heisman Trophy recipient won 122 games in 12 years at the U.F. helm, guiding the Gators to the 1996 national championship.

I can't stand him, either, but you have to give the devil his due . . . literally. (Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)

The significance of Coach Spurrier's return to Gainesville as the head coach of his alma mater cannot be overstated. The day the Evil Genius took command of the Gator program is one of the 15 most important days in S.E.C. history, representing a sea change in the league that shifted both the balance of power and the style of play.

How important was Darth Visor to the Gators' fortunes? On the day Steve Superior was hired to coach at Florida, Georgia's all-time record against U.F. was 44-22-2 . . . and, as of that same date, Georgia's all-time record against Vanderbilt was 33-15-2.

Prior to Coach Spurrier's triumphant return to his old swamping grounds, Georgia had a .662 winning percentage against the Gators and a .680 winning percentage against the Commodores. Before the Ol' Ball Coach came swaggering back into town, Florida was 1.8 per cent away from being Vanderbilt without the excuse of high academic standards.

Gerry DiNardo was 2-2 against Georgia as the head coach at Vanderbilt. His .500 winning percentage against the 'Dawgs during his days in Nashville equaled or surpassed that of 14 out of the 19 Florida coaches to have faced the Red and Black during their days at U.F. (Photograph from The Nashville Tennessean.)

Returning Starters

Four starters return on offense: wide receivers Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius, quarterback Chris Leak, and running back DeShawn Wynn. If you count center Steve Rissler, who played right guard last season, the Gators have five offensive starters back . . . all of them seniors.

Likewise, either four or five starters are back on the defensive side of the ball, as well. Two linebackers and one defensive back return, including middle linebacker Brandon Siler. One to two defensive tackles will be back in uniform, as senior Steven Harris started 12 games at the position last year but was placed in limbo by personal issues and, evidently, remains there even still.

Coaching

Urban Meyer, like Mark Richt, is about to begin his sixth season as a Division I-A head coach. The Gator skipper's .814 career winning percentage is better than the top 'Dawg's .800 mark, although it ought to be noted that, whereas 42 of Coach Richt's 52 victories came against B.C.S. conference competition, only 18 of Coach Meyer's 48 wins were against squads from major conferences.

When Coach Meyer arrived in Gainesville from Salt Lake City, he brought the spread option offense with him and virtually every educated observer expected this innovative scheme to take the Southeastern Conference by storm, dragging the stodgy old S.E.C. kicking and screaming into the 21st century the way Steve Spurrier had dragged the league into the 20th century a decade and a half before.

The second coming of the Evil Genius?

A funny thing happened on the way to S.E.C. dominance, though. The 28.6 points per game scored by the 2005 Gators represented U.F.'s second-lowest scoring total in 13 years. The 373.4 yards per game amassed by last year's Florida squad averaged out to the lowest output of total offense managed by the Orange and Blue since Emmitt Smith's sophomore season. The high-flying Gators scored fewer touchdowns (43) than the plain-vanilla Bulldogs (45). Urban Meyer's first Florida offense was worse than Ron Zook's last one.

The question remaining unanswered, then, is a simple one . . . is Coach Meyer an Urban Legend or an Urban Myth? One thing is for sure: Coach Meyer's offenses have improved from the first year to the second year at each of his previous coaching stops.

While he was at Bowling Green, the 2002 Falcons scored 10 more points and gained 65 more yards per game than they had in 2001. When he was at Utah, the 2004 Utes scored 16 more points and gained 125 more yards per game than they had in 2003. Will we see similar upgrades at Florida in 2006?

If so, let's hope the impressive improvement on the stat sheet is accompanied by the only incremental increase in wins that also typifies Coach Meyer's transition from the first year to the second. His Bowling Green teams went from winning eight games in his first season to winning nine in his second. His Utah teams went from winning 10 games in his first season to winning 12 in his second.

Since Coach Meyer's improvement in the win column---the only measurement that matters in college football---is only about one extra victory per season, the Gators may make the leap from nine wins to 10 in 2006 . . . but that still leaves Florida with three or four losses, counting a 12-game regular season, a bowl game, and (possibly) an S.E.C. championship game appearance.

Do you suppose that's what Florida fans bargained for when they anointed him as the savior of Gator football?

Offense

Coach Meyer's offense begins with the quarterback, so that is where we will focus first, too.

Chris Leak was not designed with the spread option in mind. In 2004, the Gator signal-caller rushed 61 times for 79 yards. The following year, under Coach Meyer's guidance, Leak rushed 105 times . . . for 81 yards. His longest career rush (32 yards against F.S.U. in 2003) is almost twice as long as his longest run from scrimmage in 2005 (17 yards) and, in his first three seasons as the U.F. Q.B., Leak averaged 0.5 yards---that's 18 inches, folks---per rush.

 

The green eyes . . . the popularity in the Sunshine State . . . D.N.A. testing wouldn't be altogether out of order, would it? (Photograph of Chris Leak from Gator Zone and photograph of Philip Michael Thomas from The Wave Magazine.)

Fortunately for the Gators, Leak is quite adept at running a more conventional attack, as evidenced by the 8,271 aerial yards and 65 touchdown passes tallied by the Gator Q.B. in his collegiate career. However, Leak likely will be on a short leash this fall, as U.F.'s only other scholarship signal-caller, true freshman Tim Tebow, fueled fans' expectations by leading his team to a 24-6 victory in the spring scrimmage.

Irrespective of which quarterback ends up running the show, though, he will not have the benefit of a veteran offensive line. Four starters are gone, including center Mike Degory, and the one returnee has had to learn a new position. Other than Rissler, the most experienced returning linemen are left guard Simon Codrington, right tackle Drew Miller, left tackle Phil Trautwein, and right guard Ronnie Wilson, who between them have a total of five starts.

The running back position continues to give the Gators cause for concern. The best Coach Meyer can say of Wynn, the returning starter at tailback, is that he has done "some real decent things" in practice, while incoming freshman Mon Williams, already sans stripe, was described by his head coach as "a tough, fast guy [and] a go-hard, good, young man." Joining Wynn and Williams on the depth chart are returnees Kestahn Moore and Markus Manson, along with true freshman Chevon Walker.

How did this guy end up with the most normal name of all the Florida running backs?

At least at the top of the depth chart, the receiving corps is solid. In addition to Baker and Cornelius, the Gators get back Andre Caldwell, who was sidelined by a broken leg sustained in last year's Tennessee game. Some underclassmen will be called upon to contribute, including sophomore Nyan Boateng and redshirt freshmen Louis Murphy and David Nelson, and Coach Meyer signed five wide receivers in their 2006 recruiting class, headlined by Jarred Fayson and Percy Harvin. Added into the mix, as well, is Cornelius Ingram, a former quarterback who could line up at tight end or wide receiver.

Defense

With or without Harris, the Orange and Blue will field experience in the middle of the line, where Joe Cohen and preseason first-team all-S.E.C. selection Marcus Thomas are likely to start at defensive tackle. In January, defensive end Ray McDonald underwent surgery to repair torn A.C.L.s in both knees, so it remains to be seen whether he returns at 100 per cent capacity. Both McDonald and his opposite number at the other end spot, Jarvis Moss, were voted to the third-string all-conference team. Moss, who led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2005, has put on pounds in the offseason and is expected to have a standout year.

Perhaps ironically, the weakest point of the linebacking corps is liable to be at strong side linebacker, but Siler, who made the preseason first-team all-S.E.C. list, and weak side linebacker Earl Everett, a third-team all-conference selection, are a dangerous combination.

There will be some new faces in the secondary, with Avery Atkins and Reggie Lewis emerging from the spring as the frontrunners to take over at the corners and Reggie Nelson moving from free safety to strong safety.

Concerns exist with regard to Lewis, who originally played wide receiver and encountered difficulty when used as an extra defensive back in Florida's nickel and dime packages last season. Nelson, however, is a star in the making. His first start came in last year's showdown in Jacksonville, where he came up big with seven tackles and an interception. He went on to start four of the Gators' last five games, tallying 46 tackles and recovering a fumble in addition to his solid special teams play.

Because I dropped the ball in my Vanderbilt preview by overlooking Arizona transfer Richard Kovalcheck, I want to make sure to point out that the Gators availed themselves of the benefits of the new rule allowing graduate students to change teams without having to sit out a year: Utah cornerback Ryan Smith will shore up the Florida secondary, much to the delight of Gator fans who do not wish to see U.F.'s defense give up over 200 aerial yards per outing, surrender 16 touchdown passes, and rank eighth in the league in pass defense the way the Orange and Blue did last year.

He looks like a pretty good defensive back to me . . . of course, this was against Air Force, which uses the forward pass approximately three times a game, but still. . . . (Photograph from Cory Hill/The Daily Utah Chronicle.)

Special Teams

Placekicker Chris Hetland hit 13 of his 16 field goal attempts last fall, connecting on five of six three-point attempts from beyond 40 yards.

Punter Eric Wilbur's accuracy has improved, but his distance hasn't, as his annual punting average has declined each year.

Last year, the Gators were fairly effective in coverage (fourth in the league in net punting) but relatively ineffectual on returns (7.2 yards per return on punts and no touchdowns on kickoff returns).

Dawg Food

Never one to underestimate the power of superstition, I include in each pregame forecast a recommendation regarding the food that should be consumed before the game, as good luck can be brought to the Bulldogs by the symbolic ritual of feasting on the flesh of the enemy.

When previewing Mississippi State, I encouraged Dawg Sports readers to eat hot dogs at their tailgate, so as to highlight the dog-eat-dog nature of the Georgia-M.S.U. series. Well, I hope you have some leftovers from the game against the squad from Starkville, because I'm going to ask you to eat hot dogs before the contest in Jacksonville, as well.

Why do I want you to eat hot dogs before the Florida game? Because, while you're enjoying that traditional family fare, you'll be able to sing the following song:

My opponent has a first name.
It's U-R-B-A-N.
My opponent has a second name.
It's M-E-Y-E-R.
Oh, I'll love to beat him Saturday,
And, if you ask me why, I'll say:
"'Cause Urban Meyer works today
For F-L-O-R-I-D-A."

It's not like you didn't think of the Gators as a bunch of wieners already.

What Worries Me Most

What worries me most? The 'Dawgs have lost 14 of the last 16 series meetings to these guys, including three of the last four in which the Red and Black clearly came into the contest as the more complete team, and you want to know what worries me most?

How do the Gators concern me? Let me count the ways.

Aside from the obvious psychological edge the Orange and Blue enjoy after such a long period of dominance, they have most of their front seven back from a defense that ranked ninth in total defense and 10th in run defense---in the country, that is, not in the S.E.C.---and they will be going up against a Georgia offensive line with depth issues that very well may be readily apparent by this point in the season.

As if that were not enough, the Bulldogs will be playing their ninth straight game, while the Gators will be coming off of a well-placed open date. Florida's October 21 bye follows a five-week stretch in which four of the games are against Tennessee, Alabama, L.S.U., and Auburn.

I don't worry about Mark Richt getting outcoached by Urban Meyer and I don't worry about the Florida offense getting the better of the Georgia defense. Beyond that, anything else that could cause me concern does cause me concern.

What Will Happen on Saturday

Does anyone think Joe Tereshinski III and Chris Leak will be the two quarterbacks who start this game?

As Georgia-Florida games showcasing standout freshmen on both sides go, the 2006 Cocktail Party could rank right up there with the 1987 game featuring Rodney Hampton and Emmitt Smith or even---dare I say it?---the 1980 showdown displaying the talents of Herschel Walker and Wayne Peace.

 

No pressure or anything, fellows. (Photograph of Tim Tebow from Scout.com.)

Matthew Stafford and Tim Tebow carry the heavy burden of beginning their respective collegiate careers tagged with the labels "highly touted" and "fan favorite." There's always the risk that one of them could turn out to be a Ron Powlus or a Chris Simms, but, assuming they both live up to something resembling the hype, this game will pit remarkably evenly matched opponents.

Georgia, unlike Florida, comes into the game without an established quarterback. Florida, unlike Georgia, comes into the game without an established tailback. Both have concerns on the offensive line. Both field solid defensive fronts. Both start strong players in the secondary but must deal with depth issues in the defensive backfield. The Gators have the deeper receiving corps, but both squads will need underclassmen to step up and catch the ball.

I have greater confidence in the Bulldogs' ability to develop a quarterback than I do in the Gators' ability to develop a running back and it would surprise no one if neither Leak nor Wynn played the majority of Florida's offensive downs in this outing. However, this game will be won and lost in the trenches. The offensive line that does the better job of holding off the onslaught of the other team's front seven, giving their signal-caller time to throw and their workhorse space to run, will be given a game ball in the locker room by the head coach of the winning team.

Coming soon: Kentucky.

Go 'Dawgs!

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