Gator chomp! Florida likely headed to title game

Published 7:15 pm Saturday, December 6, 2008

ATLANTA – Florida appears headed back to the national championship game. Alabama picked the worst possible time for its first loss of the season.

Tim Tebow threw three touchdown passes — including the decisive score with just under 3 minutes remaining — to lead the No. 2 Gators to a 31-20 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Saturday. That should be enough to give Florida a spot in the BCS title game for the second time in three years.

Showing it could win a close game in a season of routs, Florida (12-1) went into the fourth quarter trailing 20-17. But Jeff Demps, helping fill in for injured Percy Harvin, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 2-yard run with 9:21 remaining.

Tebow finished the scoring, hitting Riley Cooper on a 5-yard scoring pass with 2:50 left. Alabama (12-1) will likely have to settle for a spot in the Sugar Bowl, ruining its hopes of a seventh national championship in school history.

Instead, mark down a spot for Florida, which won the title during the 2006 season with a rout of Ohio State in the title game. The Gators came into the game ranked fourth in the BCS standings, but the impressive win over unbeaten and top-ranked Alabama will surely be enough to move them into one of the top spots.

Their opponent? Oklahoma had the inside track heading into Saturday night’s Big 12 championship game against Missouri. Texas was waiting in the wings if the Sooners were upset.

Whoever it is will have to stop Tebow, who was 14-of-22 passing 216 yards and led the team in rushing with 57 yards. He tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Carl Moore to finish off Florida’s opening possession, went 5 yards to David Nelson to give the Gators a 17-10 halftime lead, and came through one more time to clinch the victory.

“That’s a good team we just played,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “We’ve come a long way as a team. We had a lot of injuries during the season, but we had a lot of guys step up.”

With Florida facing third-and-goal at the 5 after a rare sideline interference penalty, Tebow found Cooper breaking toward the middle in front of Marquis Johnson. The perfectly thrown pass — low enough to give no chance of an interception — was cradled by Cooper to make it a two-score game.

Joe Haden’s interception ended any hope of an improbable comeback. Tebow was named the game’s MVP.

“One more year! One more year!” the Florida fans chanted afterward, hoping their junior quarterback will return for his senior season.

Alabama trailed at halftime for first time this year, but just the fact that it was close put the Gators in an unusual position.

Florida came in as the nation’s third-highest scoring team (46.3 points a game) and its average margin of victory was a staggering 37 points. Then again, the Gators did lose their only close game, a shocking 31-30 defeat to Mississippi at the Swamp on the final weekend in September.

The Tide was feeling good about itself after Mark Ingram scored on a 2-yard run and Leigh Tiffin booted his second field goal, a 27-yarder that pushed Alabama ahead going to the final period.

But Florida caught a huge break when Demps was dragged down short of the marker on third down, but oDont’a Hightower got a handful of facemask. The 15-yard penalty gave the Gators first down at the Bama 27.

Tebow took it from there. A 13-yard pass to Nelson. Then a 6-yarder to Nelson again to convert another third down by a yard. And finally, a quick pitch to Demps, who streaked around the left side and hurdled over two fallen players at the goal line for a 24-20 lead.

“Going 12-0 is a hard thing to do,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Every time they needed to make a play, Tim Tebow made the plays that made the difference in the game.”

This was the 41st meeting between the top two teams in The Associated Press poll. No. 1 still holds a 23-16-2 edge.

The Gators had to play without Harvin, who didn’t even suit up after spraining his right ankle the previous week in a win over Florida State. He walked on the field stiff-legged — clearly, it wasn’t even a close call whether or not he would play — and watched the game from the sideline wearing his No. 1 jersey.

During the regular season, Harvin was the team’s top receiver with 35 catches for 595 yards and seven touchdowns. He also was second on the team in rushing with 543 yards, scoring nine TDs on the ground.

But Florida still had Tebow. That was the difference.

“He’s a great competitor. He takes his teammates on his shoulders a lot,” Saban said. “They have a lot of confidence he’s going to make plays, and they play that way. They scored two touchdowns where we had them covered about as well as we could cover them.”

The Alabama-Florida matchup was a mainstay of the SEC championship in its early years. The teams met in the first three title games and four of the first five, beginning with the historic 1992 game in which the Crimson Tide won on a late interception return by Antonio Langham.

Alabama went on to rout Miami in the Sugar Bowl, winning its sixth national title. They’ll have to wait another year for No. 7.