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Red Hot Gators focused on task at hand.


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By Chris Fowler


The intensity was crackling down the phone line. It was evident even though I was taking the call amidst the normal crowds and chaos of Miami International Airport and trying to focus over a female voice shrieking about various gate changes in two languages.

It was not a "tranquilo" setting to chat with Florida coach Urban Meyer about his amped-up Gators.

Then again, Urban wasn't really in "chat" mode and, for him, focus was hardly an issue. It rarely is. But Florida's boss is particularly keyed up these days. Answers came quickly, briefly and to the point.

Meyer can see the prize (or prizes) ahead. He knows his Gators are peaking. They have achieved a rare chemistry that he said "borders on phenomenal."

He also knows it is all quite fragile. This is the SEC. If you take your eyes off your opponent for a split second to admire the scenery, you are likely to get hit with a haymaker.

Of course, that already has happened once to Florida.

After a sloppy home lapse against Ole Miss, the Gators have played possessed football. They have bounced off the canvas. Thanks to a couple of surprises in the Big 12 and the loss by Penn State, the Gators are on track once again.

Meyer sounded possessed about not letting his staff or his team take their eyeballs off the next snap of the next game. That shouldn't be hard since Saturday's visit is from the ole Head Ball Coach himself. Meyer said he has been taught that lesson in his first few years in the SEC. If you take anyone lightly, you pay for it.

The return to the Swamp of Steve Spurrier, Florida's original football hero, is always compelling.

"Hey, Urban, what do you think you'll say to Steve when you see him before the game?" I asked him.

"Nothing," replied the Florida coach. Meyer said he doesn't even attempt that phony banter for the cameras you see coaches do as their teams stretch. "We talk in the offseason," he said. "We're friendly, but I don't go for that talk-before-the-game stuff."

Meyer honestly said there is no chance his team will be peeking ahead of the huge Dec. 6 collision with No. 1 Alabama at the SEC championship game in Atlanta. His team has full respect for South Carolina. Heck, Florida's 2006 national championship team was very, very lucky to escape a crushing home loss to the Gamecocks. Meyer's beloved special teams bailed the Gators out that day with a blocked field goal.

The '08 special teams are even better. Since Bob Davie burdened him with special-teams responsibility at Notre Dame, Meyer has made it his mission to manage the kicking game. At the time, he traveled the landscape to learn about special teams -- including the required stop in Blacksburg, Va., of course. Meyer coached the special teams while running the programs at Bowling Green and Utah, too.

Meyer uses all sorts of gimmicks to make the special teams seem ... special. His custom is to let special-teams players eat first at training table. They get first pick of the best equipment-room gear. In 2005, they were presented their SEC rings before the rest of the team. Starters get the message: It's cool to be on special teams. Many of the Gators' most talented guys are on the punt-block team, and former five-star recruit and USC transfer Emmanuel Moody is now "begging" for a spot on that unit, Meyer told me.

However, it is Florida's offensive line that deserves a huge part of the credit for the team's current roll. This is the first time at Florida that Meyer has felt really confident and comfortable with his O-line. At Utah, it was the unsung reason behind the Utes' spread success. Not until this season did Meyer feel like he had a Gators group that strong.

Opposing coaches who scout tape of the Gators point to a shift in emphasis away from the "spread-you-out-and-pitch-it-around" approach to a more physical, power-oriented run game. "That's accurate," Meyer said. As I said, he was in a mood for short answers.

According to Meyer, Tim Tebow's emotional media briefing after the Ole Miss loss, when he "promised" no team would work harder, etc., was not really a turning point for the Heisman winner. He has maintained his high level throughout, Meyer told me. Instead, it was a rallying point for the rest of the team, which raised its level.

Ellis Johnson, the veteran defensive guru who now runs South Carolina's top-rated SEC defense, said Florida is not as explosive as the Pat White/Steve Slaton/Owen Schmitt/Darius Reynaud-led West Virginia offenses he faced twice while at Mississippi State. The current Gators are more dangerous with the passing game, though.

According to Johnson, the team that has done the best job limiting the Gators' offense is Miami, way back in Week 2. Remember, that game was 9-3 Florida until the fourth quarter. Of course, Percy Harvin was not yet fully healthy, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey had not yet found themselves, and the O-line was still jelling. So containing UF is a whole different deal now.

Florida has been so dominant in the past five games that the Gators have an amazing 80-0 edge in first-quarter scoring!

If Vandy had not added a late touchdown last week, the Gators would have become just the second SEC team to win five straight conference games by at least 30 points each. The other was Florida's 1996 national championship team.

If no one at Florida and Alabama admits to thinking ahead to Dec. 6, well, that's what we media types are for. It'll be crazy in that dome if both sides can navigate to Atlanta without another loss for Florida and with Alabama unbeaten. Florida's game at Florida State feels tricky, even though the Gators are clearly superior. A nasty rivalry game on the road against a strong defense has many classic ingredients for an upset.

I'm not calling for the Noles to shake up the title chase just yet. I'm just saying...

Alabama's getting Auburn at home makes the upset chances much lower in the Tide's annual showdown -- even though the Tigers have gotten them six in a row. I know that Mississippi State has beaten Bama two in a row and that the Crimson Tide's offense has not crossed the goal line against the Bulldogs since 2004, but that has become a huge source of embarrassment and a big cause for the Tide this week. They will find the end zone this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. I promise. And more than once.

By the way, do you know how long it has been since a No. 1 team in the AP poll has lost a November home game to a team with a losing record? Well, before most of you were born. A year before I was born, in fact, and I am not feeling real young. In 1961, scrappy 2-4-1 TCU snuck into Austin and shocked the top-ranked Horns. And it has not happened since.

But when Florida and Alabama finally get to their SEC championship game rendezvous, the (likely) top-ranked Tide can again revert back to the "unrespected, underdog" mode. Despite the pollsters' support, the "experts" in Las Vegas would make Florida a solid favorite in a de facto national semifinal game. To be precise, Florida would be about an 8½ point favorite, according to the Wynn sports book.

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