Coming up with a list of the top 7 moments to feature this week in college football was brutally difficult. Some of these are a series of games, others a specific national championship, and others are an unlikely or inspirational run to a national title. For the most part, I refined this list to postseason moments, or games that decided a national championship, simply because with such an overwhelming list of possible options to feature, I decided that the ones with the biggest impact would be the ones that had championship implications.
Any big sports moment, be it an upset win, championship victory, or inspirational Cinderella run, is made 100 times better with an emotional or spine-chilling speech preceding it (scientifically, don’t question my numbers). That’s why coming it at #4 is the 2008 Florida Gators’ championship run, which started with Tim Tebow’s emotional and impassioned press conference tirade.
The preseason rankings in 2008 produced a jumble to elite teams at the top, with Georgia, Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, and Florida all receiving first-place votes, as the Gators slotted in at #5 to start the year. The Gators were one year removed from their 2006 title, but they were coming off a disappointing (by Florida and head coach Urban Meyer standards) season in which they finished 9-4. With Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow under center, an offense that included Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez, a defense boasting Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, and Jermaine Cunningham, the Gators were flush with talent at nearly every position, and the expectations were sky-high for Urban Meyer’s squad.
They started the season with a nonchalant 56-10 win over Hawaii, overcoming a scoreless first quarter to cruise. They were a whopping 24-point favorite against archrival Miami, and the Gators actually almost covered, dominating the Hurricanes in every aspect of the game en route to a 26-3 win, punctuated by a 17-point fourth quarter. After a statement 30-6 win against Tennessee to open up SEC play, the Gators looked to be all they were hyped up to be, but that image was ripped apart in their following game. Florida played their SEC home opener against Ole Miss, and they were massive favorites, especially given their 21-1 home record under Urban Meyer. The Gators gave up 17 points in the third quarter, had a game-tying extra point blocked, and then was stuffed on 4th and 1 from the Ole Miss 32-yard line in the final minute of the game, ultimately losing 31-30 to the unranked Rebels.
After the game, Tim Tebow politely answered a few questions before launching into an emotional speech: “To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry, extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida’s never done here.
“But I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.”
It would have been easy to dismiss the speech as mere frustration after an upset loss, but if that’s all it was, Tebow and the Gators didn’t play like that in the ensuing weeks. They dropped to #12 in the rankings, but after hammering Arkansas 38-7, and dismantling #4 LSU 51-21, Florida skyrocketed back into the Top 5. And this time, Tebow and the Gators were there to stay.
Florida improved to 6-1 by thrashing Kentucky, 63-5, bringing them to a road showdown at #8 Georgia. There was some bad blood following Georgia’s signature win over the Gators last year, which was highlighted by Georgia’s full-team celebration of their first touchdown, dubbed the Gator Stomp. This year, there would be no such celebration, as a 21-point third quarter turned a 14-3 game into a 35-3 laugher, as the Gators won 49-10. They climbed to #4 in the AP Poll and garnered a first place vote. Over their final four regular season games, Florida covered massive spreads, all of at least 17 points, with ease, including dominating victories over ranked squads in South Carolina and rival Florida State, and the Gators rolled into the SEC Championship game. Since their stunning upset loss, Florida was 8-0, with their closest game a 42-14 destruction of Vanderbilt.
However, a new challenge awaited the Gators in the SEC Championship, as they had to taken on the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide. Florida actually trailed, 20-17, heading into the fourth quarter. Florida turned to a ground-and-pound strategy, running the ball on eight of eleven plays and took the lead on a 1-yard run from true freshman Jeffrey Demps. After a sack forced an Alabama punt, Tebow sealed the deal with a touchdown pass, and the Gators won 31-20, clinching a spot in the BCS Championship against Oklahoma.
The game was a much-hyped contest featuring Heisman winner Sam Bradford under center dueling Tebow, a Heisman finalist himself. The Sooners led the country in offense, averaging over fifty points per game, while the Gators averaged over forty. However, neither offense managed a point in the first quarter, but Florida ended the period at the Oklahoma 21-yard line. Three plays into the second, Tebow connected with Louis Murphy for a touchdown, but Oklahoma evened the score, 7-7 before halftime. Both offenses struggled greatly, and Tebow tossed two interceptions, matching his season total to that point.
On their second drive of the second half, Florida chopped five minutes off the clock and methodically drove down the field. On third and goal from the two, Harvin took a wildcat snap and charged in for the 14-7 lead. Oklahoma would tie it in the fourth quarter, but Florida didn’t give up another point. Harvin broke off a 52-yard run that led to a 27-yard field goal, and then after Ahmad Davis’s NCAA-leading 7th interception of the year, the Gators engineered a 7-minute drive, punctuated by Tebow’s second touchdown pass of the day. Oklahoma had under four minutes to score twice, but they couldn’t even get one drive going, as Joe Haden batted down a fourth-down pass, and Florida claimed the national championship, 24-14.
Tebow was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, while Spikes and return specialist Brandon James were named All-Americans. Harvin, Murphy, and tight end Cornelius Ingram were drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft, while many other Gators went on to NFL careers later on. Tebow’s impassioned press conference speech is now engraved on a plaque outside Florida’s new stadium. The Gators have not won a national championship since 2008. but they’re back near the top of the football world, having finished in the Top-10 two straight years.