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This day, Florida Gators prove the toughest

Alabama defenders upend Florida quarterback Tim Tebow after a run in the second quarter. Tebow, the SEC title game’s MVP, rushed for 57 yards on 17 carries.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Alabama defenders upend Florida quarterback Tim Tebow after a run in the second quarter. Tebow, the SEC title game’s MVP, rushed for 57 yards on 17 carries.

ATLANTA — Turns out, tough guys can always use a hug. At least it looked that way when offensive coordinator Dan Mullen leapt into Tim Tebow's arms for a man grope in front of God and CBS.

Which is why, in the celebration after Florida's 31-20 victory against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, you found yourself reconsidering the meaning of tough.

For Alabama came into the Georgia Dome as the team of blood and guts. The Crimson Tide played bully football. Blocking and tackling, and to heck with fancy formations and cover-boy quarterbacks.

Yet, that's not the way it turned out.

In the game's biggest moments, in the season's most grueling challenge, it was the Gators who turned out to be tougher than the rest. And it was a quarterback, not a linebacker or a defensive end or a 300-pound guard, who was the hardest son of a gun on the field in the fourth quarter.

And that is why Florida will be playing for its second national championship in three years.

"I love this football team," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "I love the way they fight. I love what they're made of."

For the better part of three quarters, the game was played the way Alabama fans had dreamed. The Tide's offensive line was blowing holes in the Gators defense. Their team was controlling the clock. They were winning 20-17 and were less than 10 minutes away from a spot in the BCS national championship game.

Florida? This was the group that lost the one time another team dared to stand up to it this season. Tebow? He was the quarterback with a Heisman Trophy but no fourth-quarter comebacks in his college career.

The Gators were glamor and flash. They were the party school with the funky offense and the telegenic coach. Who really believed the Gators would prevail if this game turned into a question of survival?

"I think our guys take well to challenges that we're not very tough," Mullen would say later. "I think they wanted to show people just how tough we were."

You could say the moment of truth came in the fourth quarter when the Gators mostly kept the ball on the ground and drove 62 yards for the go-ahead score. You could say it was Jermaine Cunningham's sack that snuffed out Alabama's next drive, or you could say it was when Tebow beat a blitz and hit Louis Murphy for a 34-yard sideline pass.

But, really, it happened long before that. It happened in the offseason when Meyer challenged his players. When he told them they had not been tough enough in 2007.

It happened in summer drills when players were pushing themselves in ways they had never imagined. When the weight room became a place of torture and players turned to each other for support.

"We showed America our toughness tonight," receiver Carl Moore said. "That's all coach Meyer talked about in the offseason. We went through mat drills, these little wrestling drills, with players getting choked out every day. You had to go from one end of the room to the other any way you could.

"We had this one drill with a rope, and I got dragged all the way across the weight room with it. They preached toughness all offseason, and they made sure we were a tough team when we got here."

Toughness is not a team running the I-formation. It is not a coach who refuses to smile or a defense with an assortment of blitzes. Toughness is a state of mind.

It is players who refuse to yield. It is a quarterback unafraid to throw the perfect pass when his receiver is covered. It is believing in yourself when players are hurt and yards are hard to come by.

"They questioned our toughness," receiver Percy Harvin said. "We took offense to that."

The perception is Florida is a finesse team. That, because the Gators use a shotgun formation with receivers spread out across the field, they would rather trick you than run you over.

After seeing Florida hold the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Tide would probably suggest that perceptions are not reality.

"People think we're pretty, we're soft, we're not hard-nosed," said Murphy, from St. Petersburg's Lakewood High. "Everybody said Alabama is so much tougher than us. They're hard-nosed football. But we came out and played our game. We played physical, we played with passion, we played with emotion, we played for the love of the game."

And, because of that, the Gators will continue playing.

The BCS rankings come out today, and it would be a shock — and a sin — if Florida is not in the BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma on Jan. 8 in Miami.

For in the toughest of times, the Gators were the best in the SEC.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

This day, Florida Gators prove the toughest 12/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:09pm]

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