tampabay.com

Good? Yes. Great? Well ...

By GARY SHELTON
Published November 26, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Good team, Florida. Alas, it is not a great one.

Good victory, this one. Still, it was not all it could have been.

Good journey, this season. It was not, however, the road to a kingdom.

And there you have the story of the 2006 Florida Gators, gritty without being great, resolute yet not quite regal. They had a pretty good day Saturday and a pretty satisfying victory, and at 11-1, they finished a pretty impressive regular season.

As far as a shot at the national championship slot, however, the Gators are not pretty enough.

After the Gators dispatched the Seminoles on Saturday, a feeling that never seems to get old for Florida fans, you could use a lot of adjectives to describe them. Determined, for sure. Impressive, at times. Plucky. Stubborn. Talented. You could suggest they had a rare knack for winning close games.

That said, how many moments were there in this game, how many were there in this season, when you could look at the Gators and suspect you might be seeing the finest football team in the country? Or even the second-finest?

Put it this way: Since the NCAA sold its soul to the BCS, there have been a lot of teams jobbed out of a spot in the national title game.

The Gators would not be one of them.

As an argumentative guy, I would love to take Florida's side on this one. After all, going 11-1 is impressive, and the Gators' schedule was tougher than the computers suspect. Almost every imposing opponent the Gators had - Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and FSU - finished their seasons as disappointments, but still, there is something about going 5-1 against them.

Still, there are too many times the Gators sputter, too many times they fail to finish off an opponent, to believe they deserve a title berth over USC or Michigan to go up against Ohio State. You get the feeling Florida fans, most of them, know this, too. They have seen excellence enough to know when their team isn't quite there.

Even the victory over an FSU team that has been body-snatched by the Duke program sent out the same mixed messages.

Yeah, yeah, say what you want about the rivalry creating close games through sheer ill will, but this didn't have that kind of feel. FSU didn't play well, either. You got the feeling that if offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden had waited until after the game, he could have upped his walk-away money to a million dollars.

Yet, Florida sputtered and strained for most of the day. If you didn't know better, you wouldn't have been able to tell which team was 11-1 and which was on its way to 6-6.

After the game, Florida coach Urban Meyer admitted that his offensive line was "handled." He talked of his team's inability to run the ball. He suggested his team lost its emotion during the third quarter. He talked about the gray in his hair from so many close games and predicted he might be bald by next season.

That was the Gators' final argument? That was the reason a waffling voter should switch his No. 2 slot from Michigan to Florida?

In some ways, this is as much a compliment as it is a criticism of this Florida team. This has been a Florida team that has squeezed every possible moment out of its season, one that has returned the momentum of the state to Gainesville.

If the Gators beat Arkansas for the SEC title Saturday, that makes this year a keeper.

The silliness of the BCS is that it turns a football game into a beauty contest, where the voters weigh and measure various 11-1 seasons as if they were jewels in a tray. And, yeah, Florida is missing on some style points.

"Here's our style," Meyer said. "Let's see. You've got Tennessee. You've got Kentucky, which is 7-4. You've got Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Tallahassee. So much for style. You know, you want to put that against anyone in the country, then go ahead.

"Style points. If that's what's making decisions, I'm going to stand by my statement from last week. Let's implode it. It's over. If that's what is making the decision, style points, which I imagine is what it is, then we've got a problem."

It's hard to blame Meyer's passion, because a salesman needs to believe in the cars that are on his lot. And, yeah, if there was a four-team playoff, as there should be, the Gators would have earned their way in.

When only two teams can be chosen, however, are you going to debate the Gators' case?

It's a pretty good argument, perhaps.

It is not a great one.

Gary Shelton can be reached at 727 893-8805 or shelton@sptimes.com.