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An early look ahead

Florida will contend in '07, but USC is the favorite

Posted: Tuesday January 9, 2007 3:41AM; Updated: Tuesday January 9, 2007 9:58PM
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With Tim Tebow the starting QB for Florida next season, Urban Meyer will be able to fully utilize the spread-option attack.
With Tim Tebow the starting QB for Florida next season, Urban Meyer will be able to fully utilize the spread-option attack.
Rick Scuteri/US PRESSWIRE
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At least one person predicted Florida's 2006 national championship: Megan Mullen. When they arrived in Gainesville two years ago, the wife of Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, said that the Gators would win a title in head coach Urban Meyer's second season.

"I said she was out of her mind," Mullen reflected Monday night in the Florida locker room following his team's 41-14 victory over Ohio State in the national title game.

Obviously, it was the goal of Meyer, Mullen and the rest of the Gators staff to win a national championship. Never would they have guessed beforehand, however, it would come so soon. "If you had asked me a year ago? Not a chance," said Meyer. They, like the rest of us, figured it would take at least another year to compile the necessary personnel to fit their system.

But the combination of a tremendous senior class, led by quarterback Chris Leak, receiver Dallas Baker and defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen, along with instant-impact freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, lifted the program to its second national championship. Now, the Gator faithful will be expecting more.

At first glance, it would seem the Gators lose too many key contributors to repeat in 2007. As many as 10 starters from their stupendous defense could be lost, depending on NFL defections. Defensive end Jarvis Moss sounded like a guy on his way out the door Monday night ("I need to break the news to my coaches," said Moss, though he didn't specify what news), and safety Reggie Nelson, linebacker Brandon Siler and cornerback Ryan Smith could all be joining him.

Offensively, Florida loses Leak, tailback DeShawn Wynn, center Steve Rissler and receivers Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and, most likely, Andre Caldwell.

It would be unwise, however, to write off the Gators. Meyer has already exhibited a keen ability to adapt to the personnel at hand. While losing Leak hurts, next year's offense could be even more dangerous with the dual-threat Tebow taking over full-time. Some have questioned his passing ability, considering he threw so infrequently as a freshman (his 1-yard touchdown pass to Caldwell in Monday night's game a notable exception), but Mullen insists, "[Tebow] is going to be a great passer. He has a really, really strong arm. He certainly has no fear of standing in there under any sort of pass rush in the pocket to make plays."

Tebow's running ability will allow Meyer and Mullen to run the full-scale spread-option attack they made famous at Utah. The Gators' receiving corps will be young but still extremely talented with the likes of Harvin, Cornelius Ingram, Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper. Coaches are hoping one of two tailbacks from this year's highly-touted freshman class, Mon Williams or Chevan Walker, will step up as well.

The cupboard isn't entirely bare defensively, either. Freshman linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe both saw significant playing time this season. Both will become starters if Siler leaves along with senior Earl Everett. Pass-rushing extraordinaire Derrick Harvey returns, too, along with safeties Tony Joiner and Dorian Munroe. Freshman Brandon Antwine and sophomore Javier Estopinan, who started briefly before suffering a season-ending injury, will help ease the loss of McDonald and Cohen at defensive tackle.

Florida had already turned into something of a recruiting machine under Meyer even before winning this year's title; now, it's likely to become a destination program along the lines of USC. Whether or not the Gators win another title in '07, you can now expect them to become annual fixtures in the conversation like they were under Steve Spurrier.

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