In the heart of the Bible belt, it only makes sense that a spread offense evangelist would be the driving force behind what may be the next great college football team: the Florida Gators.
Sure, Urban Meyer's offense has had its rough moments and has not yet fully arrived, but his team may very well have signaled their arrival six weeks into this 2006 season. Is that a bit presumptuous? Maybe, but I think the Gators may not be all that far away from wrestling the mantle of college football's flagship program away from USC.
What you're seeing right now with Florida is the spark, the flash of what will be. There's no doubt that they have a ferocious defense that is among the best in the nation. But the offense is starting to show life of its own 18 games into the Urban Meyer era. The scary thing is that it remains in its infancy, awaiting another helping or two of more suitable personnel through recruiting.
In that sense, this year's Gator team reminds me of USC in 2002. After a rough 6-6 opening season, the Trojans battled through a rough early slate of games including Auburn, Colorado, Kansas State, Oregon State and Washington State. They emerged 3-2, with both losses narrow road defeats against well regarded foes. After that they never lost another game that season and just two more the next three seasons, finally showing a deadly proficiency in the Norm Chow offense a year and a half after his hiring. It took a while for that team's offense to find itself, adjusting to a blend of personnel between the old regime and the new one. The victories gave the program confidence and buttressed recruiting to where the next wave of players (Bush, White, Bing, Baker, Kalil, Jarrett, Smith, Byrd, Booty) helped cement their legacy at the top of college football. Both teams had stalwart defenses and a well-regarded senior quarterback who had survived four years of disappointment prior to emerging as standout players.
Since that time, USC has never looked back, combining top of the line recruiting with a balanced, explosive offense and a run-stopping, turnover happy defense. But their days at the top may now be numbered if Florida continues its progress.
The difference here is that Florida's offense has survived their rough early slate (Tennessee, Alabama, LSU) and their offense hasn't quite taken off yet the way USC's did. The Gator offensive line is a work in progress, at best, and the running backs have been a severe disappointment. When those problems are corrected, the Gators' transformation will be complete.
What's been so encouraging is that the Gators have gotten around the OL/RB issues so ingeniously, integrating two completely different quarterbacks into their offense. Senior quarterback Chris Leak is playing at a high level as a passer, and frosh Tim Tebow is making all kinds of plays as a run threat. Both quarterbacks are playing with poise, and are scrapping for yards and points on every single snap. They've done well enough to help Florida's offense become the best in the SEC (Tennessee might argue differently) despite the imbalance of a weak run game and shaky offensive line.
With each passing game, Tebow is learning a little more of the offense and making it all the more dangerous. Things should improve even more when electric frosh receiver Percy Harvin gets healthy and is worked into the offense a la Tebow. Both are the future of the program and are great fits for Meyer's offense which attacks space with speed and misdirection and utilizes dual-threat players at the quarterback and receiver positions.
I feel the Gators remain a year or so away from really ascending to where their offense is the envy of college football, but, as we're seeing this year in particular the players are starting to buy in, coach Meyer's starting to find the right players to make things work, and a handful of big early wins have energized fans and players.
As for Tebow, the guy is special. The hype is a bit nauseating and a discredit to the abilities of teammate Leak, but it's also worthy of such a player. When Tebow comes onto the field, opponents pretty much know what he's going to do, yet they cannot stop him. Tell me that isn't a remarkable feat for a young guy like that, with all that pressure, against some good defenses, to continue to make plays. Meyer's done a heck of a job coaching him up and Tebow has responded with big plays.
People are clearly noticing, because the buzz about the Gators is building nationally. ESPN's College Game Day show went to Gainesville last weekend to see the Gators play LSU. It was a departure from their supposed "no SEC games" policy/conflict with CBS and other competing networks. Guess where they'll be this weekend? Another SEC venue! This time at Auburn to see the Tigers play---you guessed it---Florida. Methinks those Game Day guys are falling over themselves to see more of Florida.
This time last year people were down on my insistance of a Gator resurgence under Urban Meyer, saying that his offense wouldn't work in the SEC, etc. It's taken some time and the transformation isn't complete, but clearly it is working and is only going to get better with more time, more recruits, and player development with guys like Tebow and Harvin. It isn't yet a balanced offense, yet is still the best or second best offense in the SEC and among the nation's best. Imagine how much better things will be when the offensive line and running game work out their issues and more talented players continue to funnel in? We saw the same thing happen at USC and it's now happening in Gainesville.
If you remain skeptical, we could simply imagine this all away and pretend Florida had been running Alabama's offense, or Tennessee's offense prior to the hiring of OC David Cutcliffe, or the old Florida offense, or LSU's offense, or... you get the idea. But then, we wouldn't be having this conversation and Florida would be off in some redux of the Zook experience.
But it isn't, and they aren't, and it makes all the difference in the world.