2008 Florida Gators Preview

Championships are not won with dominant performances from the star players. They are won when the guys you don't expect suddenly have career years. With Florida, two players in particular must step in and fill a void, all while playing above their current level.

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Carlos Dunlap: The defensive standout of the Orange and Blue Game, the sophomore has the body of a power forward and the wingspan of a center. With Jermaine Cunningham at the other end, Dunlap is an unknown quantity who is now asked to follow in the footsteps of Jevon Kearse and Jarvis Moss. Dunlap does not need to become those guys overnight, but he must use his speed (and his reach) to dominate and protect a still green defensive backfield. Assuming Cunningham improves, Dunlap could be a destructive force in the manner George Selvie has been for USF. Simply put, Dunlap can change the game.

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Chris Rainey: If Percy Harvin is Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio and Wayne Gretzky, Rainey is Willie Stargell, Mickey Mantle and Jari Kurri. He does not have the ability yet to find the seam that Harvin has or his size, but Rainey has the electric stride that can make the one yard loss into a three yard gain. He does not have the pass catching ability of Harvin, but with his separation speed, he can be wide open beyond the coverage and just focus on catching the ball. As Florida waits for Harvin to get healthy, Rainey must meet the expectations he had when he left Lakeland.

Of course for Dunlap and Rainey to succeed, they must be put in a situation to win. Part of the reason why I did not list Urban Meyer as the best SEC coach is because if his and the staff's performance last season. Like Billy Donovan, it took Meyer and Mullen and Strong the entire season to realize they had a bunch of mature high school kids, not D-1 athletes. Watching guys like Joe Haden and Major Wright take two steps forward and one step back should have been expected. Meyer dropped the ball, apparently never thinking of the worst-case scenario, which would be 3rd place in the division. Meyer has brought in Dan McCarney to coach the d-line after being head coach at Iowa State and tutoring Selvie last year in Tampa. Running backs, the redheaded stepchild of the Florida offense, now has Kenny Carter as coach, formerly of Vanderbilt. Coaching hires generally slide under the radar, but it's important to note these changes were made in two areas that needed help the most.

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Of course, one man can change it all. I am horribly romantic when it comes to Gator Sports. (I've already referenced Clemente, DiMaggio and Mantle, some of the most romanticized athletes in history.) Part of that is an unwavering support and optimism in Tim Tebow. The consensus is that Tebow plays four seasons, so maybe he does not need to win now. But he has an acute sense of self, and that includes knowing his place in Gator lore. He knows how many SEC titles Danny Wuerffel won and that Chris Leak was a great player, despite a legacy sullied by the retched Ron Zook. Tebow will be a man possessed playing against the SEC and the Ghosts.

The best outcome of course is an undefeated run to the BCS title and total destruction of OSU/USC. The worst case is a return trip to the Capital One/Florida Turnpike/Citrus Bowl. More likely is a one or two loss campaign, with blemishes coming at Tennessee or against Georgia. LSU will be played again like Ali-Frazier in Manila, and will be for the next few years. If the Gators can handle Tennessee on the road, they play LSU and Georgia with a mental toughness they lacked in last year's wandering season. If that happens, only Spurrier and Bowden stand between an SEC Championship Game with Auburn or LSU, assuming Bama is a year away.

The season starts tomorrow. Go Gators.

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