GAINESVILLE — Urban Meyer ran off the field Saturday night in Starkville, Miss., with a 29-19 victory and an undefeated team with all of its goals still within reach. The win extended the Gators' nation's-best 17-game winning streak and gave Florida its first 7-0 record since 1996. The Gators are No. 1 in the BCS standings and both major polls.
It was all good, as the coach often likes to say. At least it should have been.
Which makes it all the more interesting that Meyer felt compelled to spend about 30 minutes after the game trying to bolster his team's ego and remind it of all the good things it has going.
Meyer knew the criticism of an ever-struggling offense, questions about his Heisman Trophy quarterback's play, and concern over his defense becoming burdened by its need to carry the offense, was going to be a constant subject this week for his players, despite the win.
"I had a good talk with our team, a long talk about sticking together," Meyer said. "I know people are going to take shots. But they lose the fact that you're 7-0."
No. 1 Florida (7-0, 5-0 SEC) is preparing to face its archrival Georgia (4-3, 3-2) on Saturday in the annual showdown in Jacksonville, a matchup that longtime Gator fans know can be fraught with peril. But with five regular-season games remaining, it's clear that red zone issues and offensive production aside, Meyer's biggest challenge may be keeping an undefeated team from unraveling under the expectations of trying to defend its national title and the weight of the pressure it seems unable to shake.
"There's a lot of different things coming at us from a lot of different angles — from the media, from the fans, from opponents, from internally, externally," senior receiver David Nelson said. "Any way you look at it there's people coming at us from all different directions. The No. 1 thing that's going to hurt us is us blaming each other. The main thing with us is we've got to stick together."
Florida is No. 1 in the nation in total defense (229.57), and No. 2 nationally in scoring (10.1) and passing defense (135.0).
On offense, it's a different story. The Gators are No. 8 in total offense, averaging 457 yards, but they are 80th in passing offense. Their leading receiver, Riley Cooper, is averaging 56.57 yards per game — 100th nationally. The Gators are ranked eighth in the SEC in red zone offense, 76th nationally.
"Obviously, offensively we've got to do a better job in some areas," Meyer said.
And then there's quarterback Tim Tebow. He continues to lead the league in passing efficiency (14th nationally) but is eighth in passing yards per game (165) in the SEC, 94th nationally.
"We're just trying to win games, and it is frustrating as an offense," Tebow said. "Especially as a quarterback, you want to just go out there and score and make it easy for the defense and the fans and everything and not having (outcomes) close. It just hasn't been happening. We're working on it, and I think it could possibly be a good thing because that could give us a little bit of edge of, 'Hey, we haven't arrived and we've still got a lot of work to do.' And that's something to really motivate us."
With so much surrounding this team, Meyer's psychology degree has become as important as his ability to read defenses. He said his decision to address the team after the game wasn't based on what he has seen — but what he didn't want to develop. He insists the team is mature and has some of the best chemistry of any team he has ever had, and that he's "on guard" simply because he's keenly aware of human nature.
"There's going to be negative," Meyer said, reiterating his message to the team. "Whether it's right or wrong, the way it is people want to see people fail. That's the way it is. Our job is not to change human nature. Our job is to control the football team and each other and continue to have a very close family atmosphere, family chemistry. And we have that."
The message seems to be working.
"We're a team," cornerback Joe Haden said. "We're in this together."
Which is what Meyer wants to hear.
"There's a lot of pressure on these cats to perform at a high level," Meyer said. "I can see this (tightening of fists), and I'm going to make sure we're playing the game and having fun."
And most important, still winning.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389. Follow her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.