No. 1 Oklahoma (12-1) vs. No. 2 Florida (12-1)
Thursday, Jan. 8, 8 p.m. (FOX)
All season long, the story of college football has been the back-and-forth battle for respect between the Big 12 and SEC.
So it’s only fitting that the season finale will settle the debate.
When the Oklahoma Sooners and Florida Gators take the field in Miami Thursday night, they will not only be playing for the national championship, but also for conference pride. They will be playing to determine, once and for all, if those high-flying Big 12 offenses—typified by the Sooners, who have put up an astounding 702 points this season—really are that good, or if it’s just that the Big 12’s defense are just that bad. They will be playing to determine if the SEC’s constant claims of superiority are actually true.
As the game approached, the trash talk between these two teams picked up quite a bit. But the trash-talkers weren’t so much blasting their opponent as their opponents’ conferences—Oklahoma chiding the SEC for its poor quarterback play, Florida blasting the Big 12’s weak defenses.
So who’s right? Well, we’re about to find out.
What follows are three things to watch in this game—the three factors that figure to determine the winner of the 2008 national championship. And the winner of the conference superiority debate.
Oklahoma Quarterback Sam Bradford vs. The Florida DefenseFlorida linebacker Brandon Spikes came out this week and called Big 12 defenses a “joke.”
Though Spikes could have used some kinder words, the fact is, there’s some truth to this. No defense in the Big 12 has anywhere near the athletes that Florida will throw at Bradford. Florida has given up just 167 points on the season. Oklahoma, by contrast has given up 319. That speaks volumes about the difference in style of play between the SEC and Big 12. So don’t expect another 400-yard, five-touchdown, 60-point night from Bradford and the Sooners. Bradford will have to pick his spots. He’ll have to be patient. And he’ll have to keep his head if, early on, Florida gets a few licks in. Because they figure to do just that.
That being said, I don’t exactly expect Florida to shut the Sooners down. This Sooners offense, after all, is one of the greatest the game has ever seen. Bradford and gang put up a lot of points this year, and the quarterback’s stats were ridiculous: 4,464 yards, 48 touchdowns. In their last six games of the year, the Sooners scored more than 60 points five times and 58 in the other. Just as Oklahoma has not seen a defense like Florida’s, the Gators have not seen an offense like the Sooners’.
Bob Stoops’ Big-Game BluesThey once called him Big Game Bob. But more recently, Big Flop Bob has been more apt.
Though the Sooners have consistently been one of the nation’s best during Stoops’ tenure, and though Stoops earned the Big Game Bob moniker by winning his first eight games against Top 10 opponents, the last few years have seen Oklahoma crumble in the BCS spotlight. There were the national title flops against USC and LSU. There was the famous Fiesta Bowl upset at the hands of humble Boise State. Then, last year, there was the even more stunning blowout loss to Big East champ—yes, Big East champ—West Virginia, a team that had just seen its coach, Rich Rodriguez, pack up and move to Ann Arbor.
Though Stoops says he’s not worried about his big-game performance, the fact is, his struggles are now becoming a pattern. And as Ohio State’s Jim Tressel has learned, once the big-game losses start piling up, they become the story of a program.
Simply put, this is one of the biggest games—if not the biggest—of Stoops’ coaching career.
The Tebow FactorOnly a true cynic—or maybe a Georgia fan—could now deny this fact: Tim Tebow is one of the greatest players in college football history.
His freshman year, he won the national championship. His sophomore year, he won the Heisman. Now, in his junior season, he has basically willed his Gators to the cusp of yet another national title. Make no mistake, the Florida Gators of January are a much better team than the mistake-prone, sputtering-on-offense Gators of September. And that’s Tebow’s doing. After a slow start (comparatively speaking) to the season, Tebow was tremendous down the stretch, eventually compiling near-Heisman-worthy numbers: 2,515 passing yards, 28 passing touchdowns, 564 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns.
He saved his best performance for the SEC Championship game, single-handedly keeping several key Florida drives alive en route to a second-half comeback win over Nick Saban and Alabama.
Tebow is a unique player with unique talents. He’s a good passer. A great runner. But his will to win—his refusal to lose—is what separates him from other great players.
Good luck controlling this guy, Sooners.
PredictionI know this: The Gators won’t allow the Sooners to put up 50 points.
I also know this: The Sooners won’t allow the Gators to hold them under 30.
Yes, I know Florida’s defense is good. But so is this Sooner offense. I mean, just look at the numbers—it might be the best offense we’ve seen this decade.
Otherwise, these teams match up remarkably well. Both have tremendous quarterbacks. Both have dangerous playmakers (though we’ll see just how healthy Florida X-factor Percy Harvin really is). Both have accomplished coaching staffs that will have their teams ready to play. And both squads have their weaknesses: Oklahoma’s secondary, Florida’s running game (except for Tebow).
In the end, though, I think the Gators have two big advantages: First, they have more big-game confidence than the Sooners, who have crumbled in the BCS of late. Second, they have Tebow, a player that few teams have even slowed down, much less stopped.
This one will be close. No question about that.
But in the fourth quarter, Tebow will be the guy with the skills, and the confidence, to make the big play. That play will be the difference, as Florida wins an all-time classic.
Prediction: Florida 34, Oklahoma 31