When we think of the current incarnation of the Florida Gators, we of course think of Tim Tebow who I believe is probably the best college football player of my lifetime. Other nominees include Rocket Ismail and Reggie Bush among others.
It makes one wonder if we give Florida, the defending national champions, such deference purely because of one man's ability. After all, Percy Harvin is no longer there. They also lost a couple of good offensive linemen. There really is not a go-to running back (Tebow is their go-to running back, of course). Their leading returning receiver from the wide receiver position caught only 18 passes last year.
The more I look at it, though, you have to think of this as the favorite in the SEC and in the country, and from where I'm sitting right now, this looks like the most difficult game on our schedule, even though it's at home.
This is not to say Florida is invincible. One key injury to one key player who plays the game in a way that puts himself at risk of injury and this team goes from looking like a juggernaut to looking like a team that is merely very good. A couple more injuries and this team will start looking quite ordinary. Every team in the country, no matter how good they look right now, will start looking very average if some of their best players get hurt and can't play (see Bulldogs, Georgia 2008).
This is also not to say that we can only beat Florida if they have injury problems. Every team can lose. Every team can have an off-night. Every team can suddenly appear very overrated if some of the complementary players don't perform up to expectations (see Tigers, LSU 2008). Every team, no matter how good the skill players, can suddenly get stopped in their tracks if the line play is not at a high level.
We get Florida at home the week after we go on the road to face a Georgia Bulldog team that I think is underrated. Florida has an open date before this matchup, which can be either good or bad for us. People generally think of open dates as a positive thing, but they can sap your focus and your momentum, or they can give you valuable rest and re-energize you for the next run of games.
This Florida team returns 11 defensive starters from a national championship team. Last year, Florida was among the leaders in many defensive categories, including scoring defense, total defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks, 1st downs given up, turnover margin, and red zone defense. All of those guys return, and a young secondary got a little older. Urban Meyer is not known for putting out stellar defenses, and the defense did not make the headlines last year either, but this was a good defensive unit last year and it's going to be a very good defensive team this year as well.
The defense has good players at every level. Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap are at the defensive end spots. Brandon Spikes is one of the ten best players in the conference regardless of position. Joe Haden, Major Wright, Janoris Jenkins, and Ahmad Black make a very good 4-some in the secondary, and Will Hill will probably be the best nickel back in the league.
Where is this team vulnerable? Well, the offense sure looks like it will be predictable. Tebow returns, but the man who took the heat off of him does not. Percy Harvin has taken his electrifying game to the next level. Scat backs Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey return, and bring their 7.8 yards per carry with them. The wide receiver trio of Deonte Thompson, David Nelson, and Riley Cooper caught 38 passes last year. Tight end Aaron Hernandez caught 34 passes.
Still, this is a different offense without Harvin. Unless someone really steps up their game, it may be even more reliant on Tim Tebow to make its plays for them than ever before. And the more you rely on one player, the more likely that player is to wear down or get injured, and the more predictable (and presumably easy to stop) your offense becomes.
The chatter around the media has been that Urban Meyer is going to have Tebow under center more, in order to showcase him as a potential NFL quarterback. If this is true, it will take the focus off of the way Meyer and Tebow are most effective, and will make winning subservient to other goals. This could, of course, play into the hands of opponents as well.
But to be honest, we're really grasping at straws here. All signs are that this is a great team, possibly one of the better teams put together in recent years. It will be difficult for us or anyone else to beat them this year without a little help. Help could come in the form of injuries, untimely turnovers, fortuitous bounces, inexplicable bonehead plays, etc. One of my central tenets about football is that it is chaotic and impossible (not difficult, IMPOSSIBLE) to predict reliably unless the talent differential between opposing teams is particularly great. No game is out of reach. No team is unbeatable, but some are more beatable than others.
We will likely start the season 4-0, and then we get two very challenging games in a row. Being 6-0 at the halfway point is wishful thinking. Not impossible, but probably unlikely. If we get to 5-1, I will be very happy with where we sit heading into our own open date before the Auburn game. A 5-1 LSU team has a good chance of getting to 7-1 against Auburn and Tulane, before facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Depending on how things go, that could end up being a game that decides the SEC West. More on that another day, but to get there, we will have to go through a couple good teams, with Florida looking like the best one right now.