GAINESVILLE — Wondering how Florida is handling the lofty preseason expectations and the pressure of being the No. 1 team in the nation? Look no further than junior offensive lineman Mike Pouncey.
"We're No. 1?" Pouncey said during Tuesday's media day. "I didn't know that until you just said it."
Junior safety Joe Haden gave Pouncey an odd stare, then chimed in. "I knew we were No. 1," Haden said. "Believe me, I know it."
Check with Gator players and you'll find there are those who are acutely aware of their standing in the college football world right now, and those who seem oblivious to it all.
But from its dominating presence in preseason magazines all summer, to last week's No. 1 ranking in the coaches' poll, expectations around the Florida program have never been greater. The defending national champion Gators return all 11 starters on defense and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Beginning today, coach Urban Meyer will hunker down with his team at a hotel for the next 1½ weeks to focus on nothing but football. He is trying his best to keep the Gators grounded amid growing expectations.
"Absolutely they worry me," Meyer said. "But people's expectations aren't what drive the program. What drives the program are players and the expectations that coaches put on the players."
Good luck finding a Florida fan who doesn't expect the Gators to win it all. In fact, it's hard to find a college football analyst who isn't touting the Gators.
On Tuesday, Sports Illustrated debuted its preseason edition and the magazine's Stewart Mandel and Mark Beech have the Gators picked to play Texas in the BCS title game.
"I think the expectations are always high here, just like the pressure and everything," Tebow said. "It's the University of Florida, there's going to be a lot of that every year. And I don't think our team pays attention to it. I think we have higher expectations on ourselves than anybody else could possibly have. And so we want to go out there and be the best we can be. … We're not really focused on if we're favored, if we're underdogs, if we're No. 1 or we're No. 5, we don't really care."
Another BCS title would give Florida its third in four seasons. So you can imagine that every now and then, the players can't help but let their minds wander just a bit.
"We definitely want to do something (special)," senior linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "I think about that a lot. This will probably be a team that goes down in history if we win back-to-back and three in four years. But it's just not going to happen with us just talking about it. We've got to show it on the field and we've got to come out every week and work. It's not going to be given to us just because of the guys we have or because we're preseason No. 1. … We've got to come out and play every game hard."
Minds might wander, but Meyer is placing his confidence in the leaders of his team to keep everyone on track. He has supreme faith in them.
"There's two ways to believe in something: one is to witness it and one is to have faith that you think it will happen," he said. "I've witnessed the leadership on this team. So what makes me believe those kids can lead this team? I saw it, I listened to it, I experienced it (last season). … I also have some faith in some young guys like Justin Trattou, Major Wright and Joe Haden — I think those guys are going to take their leadership to the next level. So the combination with those young juniors (and veterans), you have the making of something very special."
His players echo that sentiment.
"The leaders on this team are not going to let us crumble under the weight of the pressure, I promise you," Haden said. "We have too many guys on this team who know how hard it is to win it all. We have guys who are true leaders, who know you have to always keep working hard, getting better. They are not going to let this team fall. It's not going to happen."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389