2006 Florida Football: Making The Most Of An Opportunity

Florida celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its 1996 national championship team in football as another season began with Urban Meyer in his second year as head coach after three failed seasons from Ron Zook, which in turn had followed Steve Spurrier bringing the program into national prominence and winning the aforementioned title.

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The 2006 Florida football team had exceptional defensive talent and were led by free safety Reggie Nelson, along with linebackers Earl Everett and Brandon Siler. The offense would introduce a new impact weapon in wide receiver Percy Harvin, on his way to SEC Freshman of the Year, eventually to the Minnesota Vikings and finally a Super Bowl ring in 2013 with the Seattle Seahawks.

Quarterback was in the hands of Chris Leak, although Meyer had a weapon on the bench, someone he liked to use out of the Wildcat formation to run—indeed someone you might have occasionally heard referenced by the sports media. That someone was Tim Tebow.

When the season began on September 2 against Southern Miss, Florida was ranked #7 in the country and they quickly rolled over the Golden Eagles and then Central Florida to set up their traditional September battle with Tennessee. It wasn’t the virtual automatic ticket to winning the SEC East it had been in the 1990s, but the winner of this game in Knoxville would still have a big leg up in the race to get to Atlanta and the conference championship game in December.

Florida fell behind 10-7 at the half and then watched Tennessee take the opening kick after halftime and drive the distance for a ten-point lead. The Gators clawed back to 20-14 in the fourth quarter. Tebow came in for a key fourth-down conversion inside Vol territory late in the game and picked up the first. Leak later connected with Dallas Baker for a 21-yard scoring pass, their second scoring connection of the night. Nelson intercepted a pass on the ensuing possession and Florida prevailed 21-20. The win moved them to #5.

The following two weeks saw wins over Kentucky and Alabama—the Tide were not a great team in this pre-Saban period, though they did hold a 13-7 on Florida in the third quarter before Leak threw two touchdown passes and Nelson brought an interception back 70 yards for a clincher in the 28-13 triumph. Up next was the kind of brutal three-game stretch that SEC teams have to navigate—games with LSU and Auburn, ranked ninth and eleventh, followed by a neutral-site game against #25 Georgia.

Florida’s home date with LSU did not begin well, as the team continued the pattern of slow starts that had put them in holes against Tennessee and Alabama. An early fumble set up an LSU touchdown, but Florida got it back when LSU returned the favor on a muffed punt. Tebow then threw his first career touchdown pass to stretch the lead to 14-7. Before it was over Tebow had tossed another while Leak was an efficient 17-for-26, and Florida had a 23-10 win.

Maybe the slow start thing had some merit to it, because Florida went to Auburn and played the Tigers even up in the first quarter and then Leak gave them a 10-3 lead with a touchdown pass to Baker in the second. Tebow threw a touchdown pass in the second quarter, but Auburn was able to get a field goal, as well as a safety when Florida committed a holding penalty in its own end zone.

Still, with a 17-11 on the road, Meyer had to like this team’s position. But the Tiger defense asserted itself and eventually Auburn nudged out to a 21-17 lead. Florida tried a last-gasp hook-and-lateral play that ended up being scooped up by the Tigers and taken in to seal the 27-17 final that would be the Gators first loss of the season and drop them to #9 in the polls.

The annual game with Georgia in Jacksonville is known as The World’s Greatest Cocktail Party and Florida got the party started early when wide receiver Andre Caldwell ran into the end zone from 12 yards out on a reverse, and then caught a 40-yard scoring strike from Leak. A defensive touchdown made it 21-0, although Georgia eventually got in the end zone and then made it a game when Tebow fumbled on his own 10 and the lead was cut to 21-14. But the Gator defense held firm.

One week later against Vanderbilt there was reason to celebrate as a 25-19 win clinched the SEC East, although with Leak throwing three interceptions and the defense nearly giving up a 19-point lead one wonders how much—if any –celebration Meyer allowed. Especially with who was coming to town next.

The ‘Ol Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier, was bringing his South Carolina team to the Swamp. Spurrier had already been back for some of the 10-year anniversary festivities and given his pedigree as both national championship coach and Heisman Trophy-winning player for Florida, he was on amiable terms with the fan base—especially given that his only reason for leaving was a desire to go to the NFL, an ill-fated two-year tenure with the Washington Redskins.

This was his first game as an opposing coach in Gainesville and his team nearly pulled the upset and knocked Florida out of the national title race for good. Only the play of defensive tackle Jarvis Moss saved the Gators. Moss blocked a fourth-quarter extra point and ensured his team was holding a 17-16 lead late in the game. Then he blocked a 48-yard field goal with eight seconds left to preserve the win.

An easy win over Western Carolina was up next and then the Gators beat a mediocre Florida State team on the road 21-14. They would head to the SEC Championship Game the following week. Ohio State was the consensus #1 team in the country, having just beaten Michigan in a game that involved the two teams everyone considered the best in the land. So much that there was a strong push for a rematch. The likely alternative to Michigan was USC, who had one loss and was playing UCLA. Florida was in line after Southern Cal for the right to be the champion of the anti-rematch people.

The more immediate opponent was Arkansas, winner of the SEC West, and led by explosive running back Darren McFadden. Florida was able to get an early lead, getting a 10-0 cushion in the first quarter then having Leak hit Harvin on a 37-yard TD pass. With the game threatening to be blown open, the Razorbacks pulled to 17-7 at the half.

Perhaps Florida’s defense was spending too much time absorbing the shocking news that UCLA had beaten USC and opened up the national title race, because Arkansas got a TD pass from McFadden out of the Wildcat and then quickly scored again to make it 21-17.

With all the momentum, a big special teams mistake hurt Arkansas as they fumbled a punt when the return man tried to field a towering kick over the shoulder. The touchdown for Florida was a virtual gift and put them back up 24-21 and then in the fourth quarter Harvin bolted 67 yards to make it a ten-point game. Arkansas responded with a touchdown that made it tight, but Florida drove back down to the five-yard line.

Tebow came in and pitched out to Caldwell, who in turn threw a pass that produced the clinching touchdown. It was the third score of the game off a trick play between the two teams and it wrapped up an SEC title for Florida, 38-28.

Would that SEC title translate into a national championship shot? It’s hard to believe today, but the momentum for the rematch seemed overwhelming at the time. I found the whole notion appalling—I’m a Midwesterner and was even writing a blog Big Ten Country at the time, but this post here, written at the time, articulates my whole belief in the absurdity of creating rematches.

A rematch was as dumb an idea then as it was in 2011 when the SEC suddenly decided it loved the idea and force-fed an awful LSU-Alabama Part II down our throats. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed in 2006 and Meyer’s Gators would get the opportunity to do what no one would give Oklahoma State in 2011 a chance at—and it’s to beat a team that expert opinion was convinced was the best in the land.

Ohio State had the Heisman Trophy winner in Troy Smith, they’d beaten a good Texas team on the road and then mostly steamrolled through the Big Ten. While their 42-39 win over Michigan in Columbus had been close, it was only a late Wolverine touchdown that put it that way. In reality, after Ohio State went up 21-7 in the second quarter Michigan never got the ball with a chance to lead or tie.

Jim Tressel was seen at the time as the nation’s premier big-game coach, a title previously held by Bob Stoops (I think we rush to judgment on these complimentary titles as much as we do the negative ones and in both cases history often makes them look silly).

The Florida special teams coverage was the only thing looking silly when the BCS National Championship Game begin in Glendale, AZ. Buckeye return man Ted Ginn took the opening kick 93 yards for a touchdown. But that just put the Florida offense on the field and with their array of formations and motion, they had the Buckeyes off balance all night.

Three quick touchdowns put the Gators ahead 21-7. The Buckeyes were able to cut the lead to seven and were in position to run out the clock before halftime. Tressel surprisingly decided to throw and the ensuing three-and-out gave Florida a chance to get a big field goal—the 10-point lead made it less likely the Buckeyes could use their running game.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered. The Florida defense spent the night proving the foolishness of rematches and that you never know how good an opponent will be until you put them in the ring. They forced Smith into the worst game of his career and ended up winning 41-14. They had to fight and argue their way into the game, but once there, the 2006 Florida football team left no doubt who the nation’s best team was.