This is the most important season in the history of Florida Football. The last time there were this many expectations around the team was in 1996, the year after Florida went undefeated, only to get destroyed by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. That team, like this one, is stacked with returners and a senior quarterback. But the current version is trying to do something that hasn't been done since that 1995 Nebraska team; win consecutive outright National Championships.
Florida's journey to Pasadena begins with Tim Tebow. In three seasons, the man has done everything asked of him. Even a Gator-hater can agree that Tebow's play against a stout Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and his recovery in the second half against Oklahoma for the BCS title, is proof he is not a fullback with an arm. His touchdown drives against Bama and the way he took control against the Sooners was something he had never done. In his biggest losses (LSU in '07 and Ole Miss in '08), he didn't do that.
Tebow has lost two huge weapons in his arsenal, however. Percy Harvin was the show piece. It was his 179 yards of total offense against Oklahoma (on a partially broken leg), that filled the void when Tebow was not on his game. Harvin made Florida's simple running game of counters and options look unstoppable. Another loss is Louis Murphy, who was the old standby and the resident trash talker. Murphy was not fast, but could be relied upon to catch the five yard hook for a first down. These two were Florida's top receivers.
Stepping up will be a collection of receivers. Returning are WRs Riley Cooper, Carl Moore and Deonte Thompson. Cooper is a great athlete who has at least one brain cramp a game. Moore is a senior, who transferred to Florida after ju-co. Last season, he only caught 14, as he struggled with injuries and learning the offense. Thompson is expected to be the deep threat, following being buried on UF's depth chart behind speedsters like Cooper, Harvin, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. You can include WR David Nelson as well, who had five touchdowns, but one each in the SEC and BCS Championship Games. The one standout returner is TE Aaron Hernandez, who is a monster. He was Florida's third receiver, catching 34 for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Hernandez is a NFL-sized tight end and will cause matchup problems for every team.
With an inexperienced receiver corps, Urban Meyer will lean on the running game. Here will be the elite backs in Demps and Rainey, who might be the fastest backs in the SEC. (Demps almost qualified for the US 100m team in the 2008 Olympics before he joined UF as a freshman.) While both are starting to produce the "hard" runs Harvin could pull between the tackles, that job will likely go to Emmanuel Moody. The former USC man was in Meyer's doghouse last year, but could have more success this season. If the Gators are serious about running a more traditional offense for Tebow's NFL stock, Moody could benefit. Moody spent his whole life in pro-style offenses and adding that style to the UF playbook could benefit Moody now and Tebow later. The question mark in the backfield is freshman Andre Debose. No one expects Debose to become Harvin 2.0, but that is the role he was recruited to play. In Harvin's freshman season, he had 75 touches for 864 yards, and Florida won the 2006 National Championship. If Debose can do the same, UF will be in a bed of roses.
Tomorrow, Part Two.