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Again, Tim Tebow holds the future of Florida Gators, Alabama Tide in his hands

BRIAN CASSELLA   |   Times

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

ATLANTA

Tim Tebow sat at center stage three years ago at Nease High School, Florida and Alabama fans hanging on his every word.

Crimson Tide faithful believed they could land the 6-foot-3 quarterback, counting on a strong bond with then-coach Mike Shula, who had a 12-hour home visit the day before. The Gators staked their hopes on his history as a Florida fan and the influence of parents who graduated from the school.

Florida coach Urban Meyer couldn't bear to watch the national broadcast of Tebow's decision, but he knew what was at stake. Then-assistant Greg Mattison had told him if Tebow signed with Alabama, it would set the Gator program back 10 years.

"That's how important Tim was," Meyer said this week.

So as Meyer played catch with his then-7-year-old son in his yard, his wife and daughter watched Tebow reveal his choice:

"Florida."

• • •

Tim Tebow will stand at center stage today at the Georgia Dome, Florida and Alabama fans hanging on his every move.

The Heisman Trophy winner from Jacksonville once again holds the future of both programs in his hands as the second-ranked Gators face the top-ranked Tide for the SEC championship and a spot in the BCS title game. Also at stake, a chance to be the first repeat Heisman winner since Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975.

"I think he's got a heck of a chance," said Gary Danielson, the CBS analyst who will call today's game with Verne Lundquist. "I just think the total package of what he brings to a football team at a university … it's not unique. There are other guys who have done it. But in this era, Tim Tebow is a very special player."

Actually, what Tebow wants most is to be a part of the national championship conversation.

When Florida won the title in 2006, Tebow was a freshman who primarily backed up Chris Leak. Today, there's no mistaking this is Tebow's team.

"It's a lot different for me now," Tebow said. "There's a little bit more responsibility and pressure on your shoulders. I've enjoyed it every step of the way. In 2006, everything was new for me. It was my first time playing in the Swamp, first road game, first time (running on) fourth down, first time doing all that stuff.

"I'm just blessed I got the opportunity (then) so now I feel more prepared and more ready to handle the situation."

The situation is of epic proportions, and Tebow is well aware of that. But he and the Gators have insisted all week that to approach this game any differently than the previous 12 would be a mistake.

"They know what's at stake here," Meyer said.

"Everyone understands."

What they also understand is it will take more than Tebow for Florida to defeat Alabama. The Tide leads the SEC in three defensive categories and is allowing just 11.5 points per game.

But the reality for the Gators is it all starts and ends with Tebow. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban, who is in his 13th season as a college head coach and won a national title at LSU, said Tebow might be the biggest challenge the Tide will face.

"I don't think anybody probably directs the offense as well as he does, plays with the toughness that he does, is a running threat that he is as well as a very efficient, effective passer," Saban said.

"I don't really think there's anybody that I've ever faced that's quite like him, that creates the issues that he creates relative to his size and toughness and ability as a runner and passer."

Earlier this season, the pressure of being the reigning Heisman winner and trying to be "perfect" weighed on Tebow. After the 31-30 Ole Miss loss on Sept. 27, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen sat him down and told him he had to start playing just for fun again.

Florida hasn't lost since.

"He's playing at a level … I've got to be careful what I say," Meyer said. "Someday I'm not going to be careful because that's how strong I feel about Tim. So Heismans and players of the year and all these neat things that go on … we have the guy we want."

• • •

Tim Tebow will stand at center stage today at the Georgia Dome, Florida and Alabama fans praying for their favorite team.

Tebow's faith tells him God has a plan for it to work out, whoever wins.

After all, three years after his momentous decision, it has worked out for both Florida and Alabama.

Both are vying for a berth in the national title game. Florida has Tebow. The Tide has senior John Parker Wilson, who led his team to an undefeated regular season.

"It really was a tough decision," Tebow said. "I really liked Coach Shula. I thought he was a great coach. And I loved Alabama, the passion they have for football, the passion the fans have and just everything. I thought it was a great town, and I really enjoyed it there.

"But in the end, I loved Coach Meyer and just being a Gator. I just couldn't pass it up."

Otherwise, he would have been standing on the other side.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Again, Tim Tebow holds the future of Florida Gators, Alabama Tide in his hands 12/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 7, 2008 10:28am]

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