Gators football honored on SI All-Decade lists

Sports Illustrated followed up its college basketball All-Decade lists published on Wednesday with a number of college football All-Decade lists Thursday, and the Florida Gators earned their way toward a few notable distinctions. In the main article, where SI went over the highlights and lowlights of the decade, the Gators took home three of the top honors: Player of the Decade, Best Coach and Signature Play.

PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Tim Tebow, Florida
A star from the day he set foot on campus, Tebow will graduate with two SEC championships, two BCS titles and a Heisman Trophy. He is 34-6 as a starter and set SEC career records for total yards (11,699), rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (141) and rushing yards by a quarterback (2,899). His impact, though, extended beyond the box score. “I don’t think I have ever seen a better leader,” said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

BEST COACH: Urban Meyer, Bowling Green/Utah/Florida
Meyer, who became a head coach in 2001, turned around three programs this decade thanks to a hypercompetitive personality and relentless zeal for recruiting. He leads all active coaches with an .841 winning percentage (minimum five years) and is the only coach to win two BCS championships. Bowling Green, 2-9 the year before his arrival, went 17-6 in Meyer’s two seasons. Utah went 22-2 under his watch. Florida has gone 56-10 in his five seasons.

SIGNATURE PLAY: The Tim Tebow “jump pass”
Florida coaches Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen first broke out their throwback play in a 2006 game against LSU. Facing second-and-goal at the one, Tebow faked like he was running for the end zone, stopped, jumped into the air, double-clutched like a basketball player, then lobbed a touchdown pass to Tate Casey. Most memorably, Tebow used the play to throw a game-sealing TD to David Nelson in the 2008 BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma — this time on a perfect spiral with no hesitation.

Though Florida is well-represented on that list, the recognition did not stop. Tebow’s speech following the Gators’ loss to the Ole Miss Rebels on Sept. 27, 2008, named “The Promise,” was No. 5 on SI’s 10 signature moments of the decade. “Following an inexplicable 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss, Tebow finished his usual question-and-answer session, but the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner wasn’t done talking,” Andy Staples writes. “Tebow honored his pledge. The Gators won their next 10 games, outscoring opponents 469-131. Florida rolled to the BCS title, and after the season, the school memorialized Tebow’s promise by inscribing it on a plaque that stands outside Florida Field.”

Tebow was also named as the starting quarterback for SI’s All-Decade Team. “A star from the day he set foot on campus, Tebow will graduate with two SEC championships, two BCS titles and a Heisman Trophy,” writes Stewart Mandel. “He is 34-6 as a starter and set SEC career records for total yards (11,699), rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (141) and rushing yards by a quarterback (2,899). His impact, though, extended beyond the box score. ‘I don’t think I have ever seen a better leader,’ said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.”

Mandel followed that up by naming Meyer as the All-Decade Team’s head coach. “Meyer, who became a head coach in 2001, turned around three programs this decade thanks to a hypercompetitive personality and relentless zeal for recruiting. He leads all active coaches with an .841 winning percentage (minimum five years) and is the only coach to win two BCS championships. Bowling Green, 2-9 the year before his arrival, went 17-6 in Meyer’s two seasons. Utah went 22-2 under his watch. Florida has gone 56-10 in his five seasons.”

SI is not done either. Tebow’s Heisman Trophy-worthy performance against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Nov. 10, 2007, earned him one of the decade’s most memorable college football performances. “Heisman Trophy voters had almost come around to the idea of giving the award to a sophomore when the Gators traveled to Columbia. In case anyone was still on the fence, Tebow erased all doubt, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for five more in a 51-31 win. “That was a Heisman performance tonight,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “In fact, it was one of the best performances by a football player that I have ever seen.””

It was not all sunny for Florida on these lists. The Gators were the No. 8 entry on lists for the Top 10 College Football Games of the 2000s and Top 10 College Football Upsets of the 2000s for losses to the LSU Tigers (24-28 in 2007) and the Tennessee Volunteers (32-34 in 2001), respectively.

Referring back to the initial list, Mandel tabbed the Southeastern Conference the decade’s Best Conference and the spread-option as the Best Innovation of the decade.

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TWO BITS: Visiting Eric Mack, Enea recognized

1 » “Two and possibly three” Florida Gators recruiters will be visiting Calhoun County, SC, on Monday to meet with four-star offensive lineman recruit Eric Mack at his school and home, according to The State newspaper. While Mack is still a South Carolina Gamecocks commitment, his potential position coach has left the program and the Gators have been after him for the last few months. He is scheduled for an official visit to Florida on January 22 – a week after he visits South Carolina.

2 » University of Florida senior outfielder Francesca Enea has been named a semifinalist for the Sixth Annual Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup. Presented to an intercollegiate and professional athlete each year who best display character, teamwork and citizenship, the award recognizes excellence both on and off the field. Senior quarterback Tim Tebow was a finalist for the award in 2008, and Enea is certainly a deserving semifinalist. She holds seven records with the Gators including single-season and career marks in home runs and RBI. Tearing her ACL twice in her short career, Enea has also been involved in a lot of community service off of the field.

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Charlie Strong hired as Louisville head coach

Florida Gators defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has been announced as the 21st head coach of the Louisville Cardinals. Strong was named the front-runner to replace former head coach Steve Kragthrope by Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich after the regular season concluded, though Jurich waited to speak to Strong and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley until after the Gators competed in the 2009 SEC Championship. The two first met Sunday evening in Gainesville, FL, and spoke about the job throughout the week as Jurich waited for the University of Louisville‘s Athletic Association Board of Directors to approve the hiring of Strong. That endorsement came Wednesday afternoon, and a school press conference scheduled for 4 p.m. confirmed Strong’s future with the Cardinals.

“I’ve done a lot of homework with this hire, and I was amazed how well-respected and revered Charlie Strong is throughout the country ,” Jurich said at the press conference. “He commands a lot of respect from people within the game, including ex-players and coaches around college football. However, after meeting him in person, I was even more impressed. Tony Dungy had a huge impact on me with this hire. He was passionate about Charlie as a coach and as person. I respect the opinions of Urban Meyer, who was part of our staff at Colorado State, and Jeremy Foley, who is one of the most respected athletic directors in the country. They both raved about Charlie as a football coach and his great character.”

During his first address to the Louisville faithful, Strong first paused and then cried when asked by a reporter if he thought he would ever get the chance to be a head coach. “Because you just never knew if it would happen,” he said. Strong also described the meeting when Jurich offered him the job as “very emotional” for his family. “Coaching is taking young men and making an impact and influence on their lives to make them better people,” Strong said. “I want them to know that their sole purpose here is to get a degree and to go win football games.”

Strong got his start as a graduate assistant at Florida from 1983-84 and has spent the majority of his 27-year coaching career with the Gators. He returned to the team in 1988 as outside linebackers coach for two seasons before leaving and coming back in 1991 under head coach Steve Spurrier as assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach. In 1999, he became the first African-American coordinator in Southeastern Conference history when he was hired by Lou Holtz of the South Carolina Gamecocks to coach the defense. His most recent stint with Florida began in 2002 as defensive coordinator under then-head coach Ron Zook. Strong survived the transition of the team to current head coach Urban Meyer, who eventually gave him complete control of the defense and the additional title of assistant head coach. He also served as the Gators’ interim coach (effectively the second African-American head coach in SEC history) in Florida’s 2004 Peach Bowl loss to the Miami Hurricanes.

Throughout his career, Strong has been known as a terrific recruiter who is able to connect on a personal level with his players. He has coached in 19 bowl games, including 12 in January, due in part to his installation of an aggressive, attacking scheme that puts pressure on the quarterback and forces turnovers. Strong has developed six first-round NFL Draft picks and 15 players who were drafted in the third round or higher (prior to the 2010 draft). Since 2003, Florida’s defense under Strong has intercepted 132 passes, good for No. 3 in the nation and best in the SEC. No SEC defense has forced more turnovers (139) or interceptions (95) than the Gators since 2005, and only one other school in the nation (Boston College) has picked off more passes. Florida’s defense has also paced the SEC in total rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per game allowed since 2005 while remaining at the top of the league in red zone scoring defense over the last two seasons (second in the nation – East Carolina).

Because of the recent success of the Gators under Meyer, the coach has lost a number of his assistants to promotions. Doc Holliday was with Florida from 2005-2007 as associate head coach/safeties coach/recruiting coordinator before leaving to become the West Virginia Mountaineers associate head coach while also coaching tight ends, fullbacks and running the team’s recruiting. Co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Greg Mattison left after the 2007 season to coach linebackers for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens (he is now the team’s defensive coordinator). And most recently, former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen was hired as the head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs before the 2009 BCS National Championship. Mullen took tight ends/assistant offensive line coach John Hevesy with him as his assistant coach/offensive line coach/running game coordinator.

Strong was bombarded by phone calls from assistants around the country looking to earn a spot on his Louisville staff before he was even officially interviewed for the position. Rumors are swirling that he may tap either Florida wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Billy Gonzales or running backs coach Kenny Carter to become his offensive coordinator. (Gonzales has since denied these rumors, though it is believed that Meyer has already spoken with Notre Dame Fighting Irish running backs coach Tony Alford about replacing Carter should Strong bring him along.) Some are also speculating that Strong could ask assistant head coach/defense/defensive line coach Dan McCarney or assistant defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chuck Heater to join him as his defensive coordinator. Either McCartney or Heater is expected to be named the Gators’ defensive coordinator in succession of Strong.

The Cardinals told Strong that he could stay with the Gators to coach in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, and according to a statement he gave the St. Petersburg Times, he will do so.

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Gators take on No. 2 Spartans in Legends Classic

Facing their toughest test on the court since the 2006-2007 season, the Florida Gators basketball team (4-0) will take on the No. 2/2 Michigan State Spartans (4-0) in the opening game of the 2009 Legends Classic on Friday at 8 p.m. in Atlantic City, NJ. Florida will then face either the UMass Minutemen or Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday at either 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.

This is the sixth meeting between the Gators and Spartans, with Michigan State holding a 3-2 lead in the series. The Spartans won the last meeting 68-56 in Tampa in the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament and also defeated the Gators 89-76 in the 2000 National Championship. Florida head coach Billy Donovan and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo are contemporaries, having known each other since the early 1990s.

Much more on the Florida vs. Michigan State game as well as some notes on women’s basketball and volleyball after the jump…
Continue Reading » Gators take on No. 2 Spartans in Legends Classic

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Gators news and notes for Monday, Nov. 16

- Florida Gators junior cornerback Joe Haden was named Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week following a terrific performance against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Nov. 14. Haden collected 11 tackles (10 solo), sacked quarterback Stephen Garcia, caused two forced fumbles, took down an interception and contributed to a pass break up in the game.

– Redshirt juniors transfer running back Emmanuel Moody and defensive tackle Terron Sanders are doubtful for this Saturday’s game against the Florida International Golden Panthers. Moody has suffered from chronic ankle problems throughout his career and injured it again on Saturday. Sanders’ rib injury is less worrisome, and while he will sit out the game, it could be a precaution.

– There has yet to be any additional news on senior cornerback Moses Jenkins, who suffered a serious concussion back on Sept. 26 against the Kentucky Wildcats. The University of Florida seemingly refuses to release more information on Jenkins’ injury, though OGGOA has covered it extensively over the last two months, most recently with this story. As far as we know, he is still waiting for the ruling on his medical redshirt.

– One would expect many of Florida’s back-ups, including quarterback John Brantley, to earn some playing time on Saturday. OGGOA is purely speculating here, but there is also a chance head coach Urban Meyer benches sophomore kicker Caleb Sturgis for redshirt senior Jonathan Phillips, even if it is only a one-week thing to give Sturgis something to think about.

There are more news and notes waiting for you…after the jump…
Continue Reading » Gators news and notes for Monday, Nov. 16

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FOUR BITS: Haden to NFL? No more distractions. Defense recovers. Nixon starts.

1 » In news that can only be classified as expected, Florida Gators junior cornerback Joe Haden told the Orlando Sentinel this weekend that he will file paperwork with the NFL Draft Advisory Board in order to receive an evaluation of where he, theoretically, would be picked if he was to enter the 2010 NFL Draft. A likely first-round selection who could quite possibly be the best CB available, Haden has received lofty praise from head coach Urban Meyer and NFL experts over the past year.

2 » Sophomore safety Will Hill watches the Cartoon Network, not ESPN. Meyer avoids the Internet. The entire Gators team is keeping the word “Alabama” off their lips. All of this to make sure the group stays even-keel, not letting the highs get them too high or the lows take them too low. “If I don’t listen to it, it can’t bother me,” Hill said. With the Florida International Golden Panthers next on the docket, Florida’s players know that you cannot overlook any opponent. “FIU is a pretty good team, despite what people think of them,” junior safety Ahmad Black said. “Michigan lost to Appalachian State before, so we learned you can’t take anyone lightly.” Even so, a big win is expected by fans who have been clamoring for signs of life from the offense. “They want us to beat every team by 102 and give up no yards and score every time we touch the ball,” Black said.

3 » Want a unit to thank for the Gators’ 10-0 record and perfect 8-0 Southeastern Conference slate? Look to the defense, which has not allowed a touchdown in the fourth quarter in more than a month Florida’s offense is also outscoring opponents 71-20 in the last 15 minutes of each game. It is rare that defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s unit is not dominant all game long. On Saturday, Strong had to make some halftime adjustments and stress how much an improvement was needed in the second half. “He tried to let us hear it,” Haden said. “He said we weren’t playing like a gator defense, and I knew for a fact that we weren’t – just don’t stuff we don’t normally do and people messing up on their assignments.” The Gators shut out the Gamecocks the rest of the game, turning a 17-14 halftime lead into to a 24-14 victory.

4 » Freshman left tackle Xavier Nixon was given the chance to start on Saturday by Meyer and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Steve Addazio, but he was sworn to secrecy. While Nixon played well, he did make a few mistakes – nothing that cannot be corrected with practice and game experience. He even received advice from Haden, who started as a true freshman for the Gators in 2007. “It was a crazy experience,” Nixon said of starting against the South Carolina Gamecocks. “I was thinking about starting when I first got here and realized it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

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Streaks and records following Florida at USC

- The No. 1 Florida Gators extended their nation’s-best and school-record win streak by recording its 20th consecutive victory on Saturday. The Gators’ winning streak is now sixth in Southeastern Conference history, tying the Auburn Tigers (1993-94).

– Defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks by 10 points, Florida’s has now won 19 of their 20 straight games by double digits.

– Head coach Urban Meyer moved into first place on the list of all-time winningest SEC coaches in conference games (minimum five years), going 32-8 with a .800 percentage.

– Senior quarterback Tim Tebow matched Kevin Faulk’s SEC record of 53 touchdowns with a one-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter. Tebow has set three all-time SEC records this year (rushing touchdowns, rushing yards by a QB).

– UF is now 23-4-3 all-time against South Carolina and 10-4-1 on the road in Columbia, SC. They have won 18 of their last 19 games against the Gamecocks and gone 4-1 against former head coach Steve Spurrier.

– The Gators have now won 12-straight SEC Eastern Division games.

– Florida’s defense forced three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble – giving it 11 in the past four games. It also collected a season-high six sacks including four in the fourth quarter, two from senior defensive end Jermaine Cunningham.

– Senior kick return Brandon James became the SEC’s all-time leader in kickoff return yardage, amassing 2,538 yards on 105 returns (Derek Pegues, Mississippi State).

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Gators win, first perfect SEC season since 1996

The No. 1 Florida Gators (10-0, 8-0 SEC) completed their first perfect Southeastern Conference season since 1996 with a 24-14 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks (6-5, 3-5 SEC) in Columbia, SC, at Williams-Brice Stadium. Senior quarterback Tim Tebow accomplished a feat of his own on Saturday, tying the SEC touchdown record with a rushing score in the fourth quarter.

The Gators went up 7-0 early in the first quarter after Tebow threw a slant to wide receiver Riley Cooper who took it for 68 yards into the end zone. It would not take long for the Gamecocks to answer, as running back Brian Maddox capped a 14-play, 84-yard drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game. Florida kept up the pressure, adding a 32-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Caleb Sturgis and a 17-yard rushing score from redshirt junior Emmanuel Moody to take a 10-point lead with 10:28 left in the second quarter.

From there, things started to unravel for the Gators. After recovering a fumble, UF was hardly able to move the ball, and Sturgis missed a 52-yard field goal attempt. The Gamecocks capitalized with another lengthy drive that resulted in a nine-yard passing touchdown from QB Stephen Garcia to tight end Weslye Saunders. Florida would then, on consecutive drives, punt twice, miss a 54-yard field goal and turn the ball over on downs after Tebow was stopped on a dive play around midfield.

With South Carolina threatening to score and in the middle of an 11-play, 49-yard drive that began at 6:29 in the third quarter, junior defensive tackle Justin Trattou intercepted a tipped pass thrown by Garcia and returned it 53 yards to the Gamecocks’ 26 yard line. The Gators would turn that miscue into Tebow’s record-tying score, going back up by 10 with a quarter to play. Struggling to get to Garcia all day, Florida’s defense – led by senior defensive end Jermaine Cunningham – would record four of its six sacks in the fourth quarter. Junior cornerback Joe Haden (who also had two forced fumbles and 11 tackles on the day) intercepted Garcia and returned the ball 20 yards with 3:19 left to ice the game.

After the game, Gators head coach Urban Meyer called Trattou’s interception one of the greatest plays in Florida football history. Trattou, who is playing with a torn left biceps, was humble in accepting praise for his heads-up play. “Every week, someone has to step up,” Trattou said. “It’s usually someone different each week. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier was candid when discussing Trattou’s game-changing play. “That turnover took a lot of steam [out of us],” Spurrier said. “Give Florida credit. They played pretty well. I don’t know if by their standards they thought they played super.”

Florida finishes its 2009 regular season schedule with two consecutive nonconference games against the Florida International University Golden Panthers and Florida State Seminoles. The Gators will then head to Atlanta, GA, to face the Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game.

Game Notes:
– South Carolina wore camouflage uniforms created by Under Armor to honor veterans hurt defending the United States as part of the Wounded Warrior Project. After his touchdown pass, Garcia saluted the crowd in keeping with the theme of the day.
– In addition to missing two field goals beyond 50 yards, Sturgis placed a kickoff out of bounds and pulled a 28-yard field goal wide left in the fourth quarter, finishing only one-for-four on the day.
– The Gamecocks attempted a fake punt in the first quarter that would have been successful save for an illegal shift penalty.
– Cooper had two additional scoring opportunities in the game, missing one catch that was slightly overthrown in the end zone and plainly dropping another in a similar spot.

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