Before Saturday, the thought of Florida playing for a national championship seemed unlikely. The Gators were ranked No. 4 in the Bowl Championship Series standings behind Southern California and Michigan, the teams favored to meet Ohio State in the title game.
In a 24-hour span, everything changed.
A 38-28 win over Arkansas in the SEC championship game coupled with USC's loss to UCLA has landed the Gators in the BCS championship game.
No. 2 Florida (12-1) will play the No. 1 Buckeyes (12-0) on Jan. 8, in Glendale, Ariz., for the college football national championship.
The meeting will be the first ever between the teams.
"It feels really good," said Florida coach Urban Meyer, who was hired exactly two years ago on Sunday. "It feels really good for these young players. ... I was asked what's our team theme. We're fighters. We've fought through a lot. And the mix of young players and old players is phenomenal on this team."
The nationally televised announcement sent the Florida players into a frenzy Sunday night. Many gathered at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to await the decision.
"I'm just so happy for this team," former Jefferson High standout and junior receiver Andre Caldwell said. "It's like a dream season for us. Everything just fell into place."
"Coach Meyer told us when he was recruiting us that if you come to Florida, you'll have a chance to compete for a national championship," said freshman receiver Percy Harvin, the MVP of the SEC championship game. "So we're here now, and we've got to get ready to perform."
Florida's margin of victory over Michigan in the rankings was slim. The Gators were 26 points ahead of the Wolverines in the USA Today coaches poll (1,470 points to 1,444) and 38 points in the Harris poll (2,670 to 2,632). The two teams were even in the computer rankings. The Gators jumped from No. 4 to No. 2, leaping over No. 3 Michigan, which was idle the past two weeks and had hoped to move back into the No. 2 spot after USC lost.
The Gators will be playing in the national championship game for the third time. Florida lost 62-24 to Nebraska on Jan. 2, 1996, in the Fiesta Bowl and defeated Florida State 52-20 on Jan. 2, 1997, at the Sugar Bowl to win the school's only national title in football.
"This is why you come to Florida - to play for a national title," senior quarterback Chris Leak said. "It's a great way to go out your senior year."
Florida's win shook up the BCS bowl picture for LSU. The Tigers will play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, the spot generally reserved for the SEC champion. In the other BCS bowls: Boise State will play Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Michigan will meet USC in the Rose and Louisville will play Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl.
SEC commissioner and BCS coordinator Mike Slive said Sunday evening the system remains flawed.
"Michigan has a great program and a great team and a great coach," Slive said. "There are several deserving teams, and there are only two spots. It was real close, and that is the system in place right now."
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr on Sunday said Meyer had made what he considered "inappropriate" comments during the past couple of weeks, insinuating Meyer had lobbied for his team. After Michigan lost to Ohio State, 42-39 on Nov. 18, Meyer said often that if Florida won out, it should have a shot to play for the title. Meyer denied lobbying, saying he answered honestly when asked his opinion.
Meyer, an Ohio native and former Ohio State assistant coach, said he's honored to be playing the Buckeyes.
"It's really special," Meyer said. "I love Ohio State. I have my graduate degree from there. My mentor and (former) head football coach Earle Bruce was there, and I grew up with Woody Hayes. If you walk in my home now, there's a picture of Woody Hayes - a big one. I don't want to say I genuflect in front of it, but it's very close. That's the way I was raised. I still remember days walking around at Christmas time or in November when you're out shopping, Ohio is a great place. It's all about the Buckeyes."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.
Meet Ohio State
Famous alumni: Jack Nicklaus, golfer; Jesse Owens, Olympic gold medalist; Archie Griffin, two-time Heisman Trophy winner; John Havlicek, NBA Hall of Famer
Previous BCS bowl appearances: After 2005 season (defeated Notre Dame 34-20 in Fiesta), 2003 (defeated Kansas State 35-28 in Fiesta), 2002 (defeated Miami 31-24 in 2OT for BCS title in Fiesta), 1998 (defeated Texas A&M 24-14 in Sugar).
BCS title game
8 p.m. Jan. 8, Glendale, Ariz.
Ticket information: Call toll-free 1-877-428-6742.
11 a.m. Jan. 1, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa; Penn State vs. Tennessee
1 p.m. Dec. 12, Birmingham, Ala.
USF vs. East Carolina