Defensive end Steven Harris admits that two years ago if someone had said he and the rest of the Gators would be where they are today, he would have walked away thinking they'd lost their mind.
No. 4 in the nation? Regaining national respect?
Playing this evening for an SEC championship in Atlanta?
Not a chance.
Fresh off an embarrassing loss to Mississippi State and with their coach, Ron Zook, finishing the remainder of the 2004 regular season after being fired, the players found themselves on a sinking ship, unsure if life rafts would be launched.
"It was bad, really bad," Harris said. "I wanted to believe it would all turn around. I wanted to believe that we would get here. But back then if you had told me, I don't think I would have believed it."
Most of his senior teammates concur.
"Oh, definitely we thought it might not happen," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "It's been a big turnaround for us and we went through a lot. It definitely makes you thankful for everything that's going on this year. You kind of sit back and see what's happening. To go from 8-5 every year, now we're 11-1 and in the top five in the BCS. We're still playing for a lot right now. Usually this time right now, we're sitting around waiting to see where we're going to end up in a bowl game. It feels good to be in a different situation."
The Gators haven't been to the SEC title game since 2000. They are one year removed from a group of seniors who never played for a title. So their appreciation for what this means is almost greater than can be expressed.
"We always talk about getting to Atlanta, and we finally got here so we've got to do something about it," senior center Steve Rissler said. "People (former players) come in and talk about that ring and that's all they talk about. And Coach (Urban) Meyer has talked about how after the SEC game, they (winners) hold up that big SEC sign. That would be great to do that."
Trials and tribulations
It has been a long road for this senior class, filled with personal and football-related problems.
A few were recruited by former coach Steve Spurrier, but he resigned before they arrived. In the midst of two 8-5 and one 7-5 season, linebacker Earl Everett lost a beloved cousin who was like a brother in a mysterious accidental drowning. Harris was charged with assault at an off-campus party, but after a 15-hour trial that ended in a hung jury, he took deferred prosecution. Ray McDonald has had three ACL surgeries. Rissler was hit and had his nose broken during the infamous incident in which Zook and some players confronted fraternity members at their on-campus frat house. After Zook was fired, many considered transferring.
"There's probably not a senior class in the country that's been through more than this senior class," said Meyer, who added he never has respected a senior class more. "It's very hard to earn a coaching staff's admiration and when I say that, that's heartfelt admiration. I admire these guys. I'm not too proud to say I love them."
In retrospect, Dallas Baker said, it all seems like part of some divine plan.
"It brought us together," said Baker, second on the team with 52 catches for 697 yards. "We've been through a lot of things these last four or five years, with a coaching change and players making mistakes and a lot of hassles. Now, looking back, we've been through so much that nothing else can harm us."
After a 17-16 win over South Carolina Nov. 11 to clinch the trip to Atlanta, Harris and Baker wept in each other's arms. Meyer said that epitomized the struggle this class has been through.
"Steve Harris and Dallas Baker after that game, you know that's not phony stuff," he said. "It's a lot of emotions built up over those last four to five years. A lot of those dreams that crashed and burned and now those dreams are still alive."
The only thing standing between the Gators and realizing their dreams is Arkansas.
"None of us has rings," Baker said. "None of us ever won any BCS bowl or anything like that around here. For us to play for the SEC championship and have a chance to win, it's something very special and something we don't want to let slip away."
Antonya English can be reached at (813) 226-3389 or email@example.com.
Florida vs. Arkansas
SEC championship game, 6 p.m., Georgia Dome, Atlanta. TV/radio: Ch. 10; 1250-AM, 1470-AM.
Line: Florida by 21/2
Other games on TV
Noon: UConn at Louisville, ESPN
1: ACC championship: Wake Forest vs. Ga. Tech, Ch. 28
2:30: Army vs. Navy, Ch. 10
3: Stanford at Cal, FSN
4: Div. I-AA quarterfinal: Mont. St. at App. St., ESPN2
4:30: USC at UCLA, Ch. 28
7:45: Rutgers at West Virginia, ESPN
8: Big 12 championship: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, Ch. 28
Midnight: Oregon St. at Hawaii, ESPN
No. 4 Florida vs. No. 8 Arkansas
Arkansas makes its third appearance in the SEC championship game, still looking for its first title. In its last trip in 2002, coach Houston Nutt now admits the Hogs felt like they "backed into the game" and weren't talented enough to play with eventual champion Georgia. Not this time. Like Florida (11-1) in the East, Arkansas (10-2) won the West outright and enters feeling confident. A big part of that is Darren McFadden and a running game that has been nearly impossible to stop. Florida hopes to neutralize the run and force Arkansas to throw, which isn't the Razorbacks' strong suit. They won 10 straight after losing the opener to USC, but are coming off a tough loss to LSU. Nutt and the players insist they have moved on and are emotionally ready to play.