BCS National Title Game Bowl preview: Florida vs. Ohio State

BCS National Title Game Bowl
Date: Monday, January 8, 2007
Location: Glendale, Arizona
Line: Ohio State -7 ½, over/under 46

The BCS Championship game is not without its usual dose of controversy.

Sending the undefeated and top-ranked Ohio State Buckyes (12-0) to Glendale, Ariz., was a given, but pitting them against the No. 2 Florida Gators (12-1) ruffled more than a few feathers.

Florida came into the last week of the season ranked fourth in both national polls and in the BCS standings. The Gators beat Arkansas 38-28 in the SEC championship game and then watched as second-ranked USC lost to UCLA.

That left pollsters and the computers to decide between Florida and a one-loss Michigan team that suffered its only loss on the road to the Buckeyes 42-39. Incredibly, the computers were exactly split on the decision. Florida and Michigan both finished with a .940 rating, tied for second behind the Buckeyes.

Human voters in both the coaches and Harris polls decided on the Gators by the slimmest of margins. One Harris poll voter went as far as to vote Florida No. 1. The decision put the Gators in the national championship game for the first time since they won it all in 1996.

The Buckeyes are only four years removed from their own national championship. Ohio State shocked the world when it upset the Miami Hurricanes as two-touchdown underdogs in the Fiesta Bowl in 2003.

Now Florida is in the same spot as Ohio State was then, meaning no one is giving the Gators a chance. The Buckeyes have beaten their opponents by an average margin of 26 points per game. They rank seventh in the nation in scoring offense (36.3) and second in scoring defense (10.4).

Both units are highlighted by the top offensive and defensive players in the nation. Senior quarterback Troy Smith was named the 72nd Heisman Trophy winner on Dec. 9, becoming the closest to a unanimous winner in the history of the award. He also won the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award and the Davey O`Brien National Quarterback Award.

Smith completed 67% of his passes for 2,507 yards, 30 touchdowns and five interceptions. A scrambling quarterback in his first two seasons as starter, Smith made his mark mostly through the air this year. He ran for 233 yards and one touchdown on the year.

On the other side of the ball, sophomore linebacker James Laurinaitis was named Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Year. Laurinaitis was the star of one of the nation`s top defenses in his first year as a starter and was the leader of a unit that saw all three of last year`s starters get selected in the first three rounds of the 2006 NFL Draft.

This year`s defense finished with better numbers across the board than last year`s despite returning just two starters. Laurinaitis finished fifth in the Big Ten with 100 tackles and added four sacks and five interceptions.

Florida will counter Ohio State`s stingy defense with one of the most innovative offenses in the country. The Gators operate out of the spread option offense. The strength of the system is its ability to spread the field wide and create mismatches as well as take advantage of a mobile quarterback.

Four-year starter Chris Leak isn`t the perfect fit for the system. Leak was more of a pocket passer before head coach Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville two years ago. He has slowly grown more comfortable running the football since then, but his lack of natural running ability means the Gators turn to true freshman quarterback Tim Tebow at times to run the football.

Tebow`s explosive play had more than a few Gators fans calling for a quarterback change midway through the season. But Meyer has insisted Leak is Florida`s starter. Tebow attempted only 32 passes this year, but completed 21 of them for 354 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. His quarterback rating of 194.3 would be the highest in the nation if he had enough pass attempts to qualify.

Tebow`s passing skills are anything but refined. Most of the time he simply lines up under center and runs the ball straight up the middle. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder encourages contact in his style of running and is difficult to bring down with one tackler.

He finished the year as Florida`s second leading rusher with 79 carries for 430 yards and seven touchdowns.

Against the Buckeyes, however, Leak will get the majority of snaps. He has struggled at times this season and hasn`t improved from his freshman year on paper. His emergence as one of the leaders of the team has been key to the Gators` rise to one of the best teams in the nation.

Another reason the Gators will give the Buckeyes a fight is their defense. The SEC is full of teams that are strong against the run, but Florida was far and away the best in the conference. The Gators didn`t allow a 100-yard rusher all season and they held Arkansas running back Darren McFadden — who finished runner-up to Smith for the Heisman Trophy — to 73 yards on 21 carries in the SEC championship game.

This is the first time Florida and Ohio State have ever played and the first time this group of Florida players has ever played in a BCS bowl game. Ohio State has gone to a BCS bowl games four of the last five years.

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