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December 2, 2006

Florida states its case for a national title shot

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Box score | Florida 38, Arkansas 28

ATLANTA Urban Meyer sees no room for debate.

The Florida coach believes there's no doubt his Gators belong in the national championship game.

"We deserve a shot," Meyer said Saturday night after Florida's 38-28 Southeastern Conference championship game victory over Arkansas at the Georgia Dome. "The other team (Michigan) had their shot. We went 12-1. I think the country wants to see the Southeastern Conference champion against the Big Ten champion."

The Gators made a strong case on the field and in the interview room.

But was it strong enough to help the fourth-ranked Gators leapfrog No. 3 Michigan in the Bowl Championship Series standings and earn a Jan. 8 date with No. 1 Ohio State at Glendale, Ariz.?

Probably not.

Florida had to rally in the second half after blowing a 17-0 advantage. The Gators gave the lead away on a pair of Chris Leak interceptions and regained the lead after Wondy Pierre-Louis recovered a fumbled punt return in the end zone late in the third quarter.

It wasn't necessarily a championship-caliber performance. The Gators did just enough to win.

Then again, that's what they've been doing all season. NFL teams that follow this formula are rewarded. College teams that do it get penalized.

Florida played the toughest schedule in the land this season and responded with a 12-1 record. The Gators are champions of the nation's best conference and beat ranked foes Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana State.

They'll probably fail to reach the national title game only because their victories lacked the style points required in a system that depends on polls and computers to determine who plays for the championship.

"We play hard-nosed football," Florida tight end Tate Casey said. "We play football the way it's meant to be played. We don't worry too much about style points."

Florida hadn't scored more than 28 points against an SEC opponent until Saturday. The Gators beat Vanderbilt by just six points and needed to block a field-goal attempt as time expired to eke out a one-point home victory over South Carolina.

That's why Florida entered the night needing plenty of help to even have a chance at playing for the national title. Florida had to win convincingly and hope 12-point underdog UCLA upset No. 2 Southern California.

UCLA did its part with a stunning 13-9 victory over the Trojans in a game that ended at halftime of the SEC championship.

As soon as USC quarterback John David Booty's final pass fell harmlessly to the Rose Bowl turf thousands of miles away, the Georgia Dome crowd erupted with one of its loudest cheers of the night.

UCLA's upset prevented the smooth path to a (Men of) Troy vs. Troy (Smith) showdown. It also began the hair-splitting that will always occur at this time of year until college football adopts a playoff.

When two teams have virtually the same credentials, how do you decide which one is more deserving? Do you reward the Florida team that faced the tougher schedule or the Michigan program that looked more impressive in its victories?

There really is no right or wrong answer.

Mike Slive understands the dilemma better than anyone. He's in the precarious position of serving the dual role of BCS coordinator and SEC commissioner.

"I think any team in our league that wins our championship with one or two losses deserves to play for the national championship," Slive said at halftime Saturday. "That's a parochial SEC perspective."

Slive then added that his position as BCS coordinator helps him realize that officials at other conferences might feel the same way about their leagues. The system in place for deciding championship teams will always leave someone feeling disappointed.

It inevitably forces contenders to make sales pitches as soon as they've completed their schedules.

"If we get the opportunity to play for the title, we know it'll be well-deserved," Leak said. "We fought through a lot of adversity this season and hung tough. We know it'll be a great deal for us to be able to play for a title."

Florida definitely has selling points in its favor.

The Gators have nine victories over bowl-eligible teams, while Michigan has beaten just five bowl-eligible programs. Perhaps most importantly, Florida hasn't gotten a chance to face Ohio State yet, while the Wolverines lost 42-39 to the Buckeyes in their regular-season finale.

Florida's best hope is that enough voters in the USA Today coaches' poll and the Harris Poll decide they don't want to see a rematch in the national title game.

In the end, however, the debate could come down to those dreaded style points.

Michigan has them. Florida doesn't.

And it doesn't really matter that the whole idea of style points determining a title puzzles Meyer to no end.

"With the schedule we play, we just have to find a way to win a game," Meyer said. "I'm not too concerned about style points. I'm concerned about 21 seniors playing their hearts out and finding a way to win 12 games (against) the No. 1 most difficult schedule in America."

The Gators played their hearts out this season.

Now they're probably about to get their hearts broken.

For more coverage of Florida, visit GatorBait.net; for more on Arkansas, visit HawgSports.com.

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