Gators move closer to retaking their throne

Published October 8, 2006

GAINESVILLE - His teammates had already left the field, and still Tim Tebow was running. He began in one end zone, where he exchanged high-fives with fans, then dipped and darted between the visitors bench and a handful of LSU equipment handlers before continuing his victory parade in the next end zone.

All in all, this postgame sprint couldn't have lasted more than 90 seconds. And yet, it almost felt as if 10 years had somehow melted away.

The Florida Gators are 6-0 for the first time since winning the national championship in 1996 and may also be heading to the Top 3 in the polls for the first time in their post-Spurrier world.

So perhaps a reality check is in order, for it is far too soon to talk of bowl games and national rankings. It is even too soon to talk of the Southeastern Conference title since Georgia stands between Florida and the league championship game.

But there was something different about the cool breeze blowing through Florida Field on Saturday evening. It felt comfortable, like old friends and fond memories. It felt, all these years later, as if the winds of change had finally returned.

Could Florida really be ready to reclaim its place atop the SEC?

"We're getting there. I really believe we're on the way to being back on top," defensive end Ray McDonald said. "We haven't been 6-0 since I've been here, so that's nice. But we've still got a long way to go. We still have to get past Auburn next week and a lot of games after that.

"Tell you what. Ask me that question again at the end of the season. I may have a much better answer for you."

There was a time, in the mid 1990s, when the SEC was like Florida's private playground. The Gators hogged the seesaw, ruled the swings and routinely kicked sand in Georgia's face. The Gators won five conference titles in a six-year span, culminating with that national championship in '96.

Of course, you know what happened next. Out of nowhere, the balance of power shifted. Tennessee took over as the neighborhood bully. Then LSU. Even Georgia had its day. Florida? It was just another contender. A good team but not particularly fearsome. In the past decade, three teams have won multiple SEC titles. And none of them wears orange and blue.

That's what made Saturday's 23-10 victory against LSU more special than most. It ensured Florida has meaningful games ahead, and it has been a long time since that has been true in Gainesville in October.

Every recent season has featured one stumble or another by now. Sometimes, it was a loss at Knoxville. Occasionally there was an upset by a team from Mississippi. More often than not, it was LSU putting UF in its place.

This time around, the Gators can look ahead without regrets. This season, the Gators can say they are the holders of their fate.

"This was a very special and emotional moment for us seniors," quarterback Chris Leak said. "We are going to remember this for the rest of our lives."

The Gators remain Leak's team, but Tebow took it for a spin on Saturday. In his usual cameo role, Tebow ran for one touchdown, threw for two more and sent 90,000 fans into hysterics every time he waved his arms.

Leak may be the only Heisman Trophy candidate in history who would have a hard time winning a popularity contest within his own stadium.

Where Leak is methodical and unemotional, Tebow is a runaway train with a screaming whistle. The impact his brief appearances have on Florida fans - and on opposing defenses - continues to grow in stature by the week.

The first touchdown pass of Tebow's college career arrived Saturday, and it was typical of his just-get-it-done style. He was supposed to fake a power run near the goal line and then leap and find the tight end in the end zone.

The only problem was the tight end was slow coming off a block and wasn't open when Tebow jumped. It left him hanging in the air and double-pumping before finally getting off an awkward-looking toss to Tate Casey for a 1-yard touchdown.

"It looked so pretty all week in practice," offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "Then he jumps and shoots it like a basketball."

Such are the spoils of a team still climbing a mountain. Players can laugh at their mishaps and joke about their near misses.

The Gators have not yet reached the top, but they remain upright today.

For now, that will do.