NEW ORLEANS — Amid a tumultuous week in which their coach resigned then opted for an indefinite leave of absence, talk surfaced of mass defections among the junior class and assistant coaches made plans to leave, Florida's players insisted they were unfazed by the chaos.
Sure, it had been an emotional week, they said, and it came on top of a season filled with drama.
Nevertheless, they said, they could not be more focused on the task at hand.
After missing out on a shot at a second straight national title because of a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game nearly a month ago, the No. 5 Gators wanted — no, needed — a big-time showing against undefeated Big East champion and No. 4 Cincinnati in Friday's Sugar Bowl.
Nothing else mattered, they said. At times during the week leading up to the game, it sounded contrived. Apparently, it wasn't.
Led by a career night from senior quarterback Tim Tebow — a Sugar Bowl-record 482 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown — and a defense determined to erase the embarrassment of its previous outing, Florida dominated from the opening possession on its way to a 51-24 victory at the Louisiana Superdome.
"This has been the best four years of life," Tebow said. "We wanted to end it on a good note.
"It was incredible, just a great game. It was exactly how you want to go out with these seniors and these coaches in your last game and your last time together. It really doesn't get any better than this."
By halftime, Tebow was 20-of-23 for 320 yards (18 fewer than his career high) and three touchdowns, Florida led 30-3 and its heavily outnumbered fans were chanting "SEC" and "Urban Meyer" — recognizing what might be Meyer's final game as the Gators' coach. ("I plan on being the coach of the Gators," Meyer said.)
Cincinnati (12-1), which entered with the nation's sixth-best scoring offense and fifth-best rushing offense, didn't score its first touchdown until Tony Pike's 2-yard pass to Marcus Waugh, which made it 37-10 with 4:46 left in the third.
The Gators (13-1) scored on their first series, a 7-yard catch by tight end Aaron Hernandez with 6:13 left in the first quarter. Tebow, who vowed to emotionally rally his team through the chaos of the week, was 7-for-7 for 61 yards on the drive.
Florida led 9-0 after the first quarter, and its defense, maligned against Alabama, was stellar, allowing minus-11 rushing yards and 19 total. In all, it allowed 255 yards (116 coming in the fourth).
"We were trying to prove that the Alabama game was a fluke, and we just couldn't let (defensive coordinator and new Louisville coach Charlie Strong), Coach Meyer or the seniors go out like that,'' junior cornerback Joe Haden said.
"This was real important. That's why we came out here and played so hard. That was the real Florida defense."
Tebow threw multiple touchdowns for the fifth time this season and 30th overall. They included a 7-yarder to Deonte Thompson with 9:07 left in the second quarter (his first since Oct. 17) and an 80-yarder to Riley Cooper (Florida's longest since Chris Leak to Chad Jackson against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 10, 2005) with 3:02 left in the first half.
It was Cooper's team-high ninth touchdown catch of the season. He finished with 181 receiving yards, second in Sugar Bowl history to the 239 of LSU's Josh Reed in 2002.
"This was the best way to go out, 13-1, having the seniors go out on the best note possible, and Coach Meyer," Cooper said.
"We're so happy right now.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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