Monday, January 15, 2007

The time has come to say goodbye

It was funny walking out of the Swamp on Saturday after the championship celebration.

As I left out of the southwest side of the stadium, I saw legions of fans blocking Dallas Baker from walking out of the stadium.

I saw Cornelius Ingram stopped on his scooter to sign autographs.

I saw countless others waiting for players to come out next to the Florida Gym.

I guess this is what life is like when you are the champion. The same thing happened to the basketball team. People followed Joakim Noah to class, waited through his lecture and then asked for an autograph.

Now the football team has reached the "Aerosmith" status that Noah referred to.

I have one message for the football team: Don't let this get to your heads, but enjoy it too. Don't big time fans, but do what Ingram and Baker did. Sign the autographs, mingle with the fans and soak up the experience, because you might never get a chance to do it again.

I thank everyone who has made Gators in Glendale possible, the list of names is too long to put down here. To tell you the truth, I'm afraid if I start listing I'll forget a name or two.

But, most of all, thank you to the readers.

Please continue to read the Alligator and surf for all of your Gators sports news.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Where are all the Gators fans?

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The players from each side ran out onto the field for warmups, and the Ohio State ovation is much louder. Actually, Buckeyes fans seem to be drowning out a lot of the UF fans with boos. Outside the stadium, there is so much scarlet and gray it looks like an Ohio State home game. For UF's sake, they'd better hope a lot of the empty seats will be occupied by Gators fans or else Ohio State may have a pseudo home field advantage.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Looking ahead

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- I got into a long-winded argument last night regarding the look of the SEC next season with Alligator Staff Writer Bryan Jones.

While Jones thinks the Gators offense could be better next season and seems to like UF's overall outlook for 2007, I beg to differ.

The transition from Chris Leak to Tim Tebow will not be a smooth one, especially without the quarterback of the offensive line, Steve Rissler at center to keep the group together.

Who's going to play running back? Will DeShawn Wynn's replacement have success without a fullback like Billy Latsko?

If Andre Caldwell bolts for the NFL like I think he will, the Gators are left with Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and Jarred Fayson at receiver, all speedy guys, but only one is proven.

On the other hand, I'm picking the Gators to fall a little bit.

There's always a surprise team in the SEC. This year it was Arkansas. It's been Alabama and Vanderbilt in the past.

Next year will be Kentucky.

The Wildcats return all of their offensive skill players and, if their defensive leader linebacker Wesley Woodyard returns, they will be a much improved team from this season.

Kentucky ended the season on a great note with a win against Clemson in the Music City Bowl and will carry that momentum into next year.

The gap between Florida and Kentucky will thin next year, and with a trip to Lexington, it's not far-fetched to imagine a Wildcats win.

The Bar Buzz

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In search of some local culture and to get a sense of the fan vibe, myself, Antonio and ex-Alligator staffer Ian Fisher made our way to Old Town Scottsdale last night, upon the recommendation of the Fiesta Bowl hospitality staff, who by the way have been fantastic this entire week.

The staff recommended that we hit up Mickey's Hangover (I'm happy to report that I don't have one), which just so happened to be the "official" Ohio State fan bar, giving us a first hand glimpse into the behavior of people from Columbus.

It is customary for Buckeye fans to greet each other by screaming "O-H!" and for others to respond "I-O!" While this may seem like a nice way to declare your allegiance to your fellow fan, doing it once is sufficient.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone started the chant in the two-and-one half hours we spent at the establishment.

A few Florida fans made their way in later in the night and attempted to start the obligatory "It's Great to be a Florida Gator" chant, but they were easily drowned out by Buckeyes singing their traditional tune "Hang on, Sloopy."

It's safe to say that the fan spirit is alive and well here in the Valley of the Sun.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Even the Stadium is against UF

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- With the Gators playing the underdog role, it is only fitting that the seats inside University of Phoenix Stadium are half scarlet and half gray -- the same colors adorned by Ohio State.

While that was obviously not intentional (the stadium is home to the Arizona Cardinals, who wear similar colors to the Buckeyes), it is an ironic twist that no doubt gives the Gators just one more reason to feel like the world is against them.

Urban Meyer and the No. 2 Gators saw got a glimpse of the stadium for the first time today during media day.

When one reporter jokingly asked Meyer if he would tell his coaches that the stadium was painted for Ohio State, Meyer said he would try to use that to help motivate his players.

"There is a lot of stuff there," he said. "The pregame speech is not going to be hard."

The Right Thing to Do

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- To add to what my colleague wrote below, UF's staff and administration has handled the Nelson issue about as well as they can. While we as journalists want to know how Nelson is, his right to remain silent should be protected now more than ever.

I can't even imagine the level of grief that he must be currently experiencing while simultaneously trying to prepare for the biggest football game of his life, one that has unfortunately become must less significant for him because the person whom he loved the most on this Earth can't be there so share in the moment.

I lost one of my best friends last April after he was hit by a car, and I was sick to my stomach for weeks, and now nine months later it still eats at me.

I can only imagine the amount of pain that losing your mother must cause.

So if Nelson wishes to forever keep his feelings to himself, I'm all ears.

Heart goes out to Nelson

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Of all the Florida and Ohio State coaches and players that were at the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game Media Day on Friday morning, the one that drew the most attention did not talk to the media.

Gators junior safety and All-American Reggie Nelson, who is still reeling from the death of his mother, Mary Lakes, two weeks ago, was the only player or coach not made available to the media.

Your heart has to go out to the kid. There wasn't a person at University of Phoenix Stadium who didn't want to talk to him--find out how he's holding up and how the tragedy has effected him.

It should be noted, most media members, myself included, didn't want to ask him about it. Who wants to talk about the death of their mother? Why would you want to relieve that awful experience? I can't even begin to imagine what he's going through.

But, the fact remains that Nelson is the Gators' best player on the field, arguably a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft if he opts to leave early, so people want to know.

Nelson has always been shy around the media. He doesn't like to do interviews, and he has always seemed uncomfortable answering questions.

I had the opportunity to speak to Lakes before she passed, both on the phone from her home in Melbourne and in October I had the chance to meet with her at the UCF game--the last one she saw her son play in person--for a story I did.

She was the nicest, sweetest lady, and one of the few Gators' parents that was happy to take the time to talk to me.

Like I said, Nelson doesn't like talking to the media. But when I was working on the story, I found that if you asked him about his mother, whom he talked to more than once a day, he would go on for hours.

Now, there is a rule that if a player does not talk on media day they can't play in the game. Florida officials have said that they cleared it with the BCS committee before deciding not to let Nelson play.

UF Coach Urban Meyer, however, did offer some insight today on how Nelson is holding up.

"He is (at the stadium for media day)," Meyer said. "I asked him last night--we had a little talk last night. He is going to not come out here today and appreciate everbody's (privacy)--the media has been fantastic. They backed off him.

"He is doing great. I am concerned about it, but Reggie Nelson is not a good football player, he is one of the best football players I have ever been around, not just a defensive back."

Nelson has been dominant all season, and on the biggest stages he has seemed to rise more.
Tiger Woods and Brett Favre are just two athletes who have recently been inspired by their parents' death, performing their best in the biggest moments.

There's no reason to think Nelson won't do the same. His mom told me in October that Nelson's boyhood dream was to win a national championship for the Gators.

And there is nothing she wanted more than to see her son live out his dream. She won't get to see it happen, but there's no doubt in my mind Nelson will be playing for her--harder and faster than he ever has.

And that's a scary thought for Ohio State receivers.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

UF's key to stopping Smith

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You know Reggie Nelson's going to effect Troy Smith's ability to pass. You know Brandon Siler and Earl Everett are going to be looking Smith in the eye.

But you don't know if UF will be able to pressure Smith.

The key to keeping Smith from adding UF to his season-long highlight reel will be disrupting his rhythm.

That starts in the middle of the trenches with defensive tackle Steven Harris, who has been building one of the season's greatest comeback stories after being dismissed from the team during the spring.

Harris has done his best to fill Marcus Thomas' shoes.

He couldn't sniff the stat sheet early in the season, but has been racking up tackles since Thomas left.

But does he have one more game in him?

If Harris can draw double teams up the middle, that would open up one-on-one matchups for Jarvis Moss or Ray McDonald, who have the speed to keep up with Smith if he leaves the pocket.

Harris is just as important as Nelson, Siler and Everett on Monday night.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Buckeyes at home in Arizona

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Sure, things are different here for the Buckeyes than their home in Columbus.

The air is dry. The sun is always shining. The green grass and bulky trees have been replaced by dirt and cacti. And it hardly rains muchless snows this time of year in the desert that is Arizona.

But one thing has become apparent : Ohio State has practically made it an annual tradition to play out here, and it shows. This is the Buckeyes' fourth trip to the Fiesta Bowl in five years, and they won the previous three games.

The familiarity of playing in the same environment has been more than noticeable. If you need directions to anywhere in the Phoenix/Scottsdale/Glendale area, don't ask a local.

Ask someone on the Ohio State staff. Or a Buckeyes beat writer. They've been everywhere here more than once.

At Ohio State's press conference this morning, OSU Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith said he more than enjoys the desert. It's become a home away from home, he said.

What does Smith like best out here? The weather for sure, he said. The luxury hotel is high on his list, too. The star-treatment it also a nice perk. But Smith said nothing beats the west coast tradition like an IN-N-OUT Burger.

"Oh man, it's a fresh burger," Smith said this morning. "It's perfect. I mean, they toast the buns. They toast the buns...We need to get some of those back home."

So much for the low-carb diet.

The Greatest Game

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- After spending a day in Arizona, there still wasn't much discussion of the UF-Ohio State game next week.

Rather, a majority of the talk has still centered around the incredible Fiesta Bowl game between Boise State and Oklahoma Monday night, and whether it is the greatest college football game ever played.

While the game caused me to get just four hours of sleep before having to drive to the airport to fly here, my appreciation for it only increased when I got here and spoke to people who were actually there.

Sitting here, I'm not sure that I can do everything that transpired justice.

A team has three tries at a two-point conversion.

The quarterback who is eventually named the game's offensive MVP throws an interception for a touchdown with only a minute remaining.

Boise runs the hook-and-ladder on fourth-and-18 with the game on the line.

Boise has a receiver throw a pass on fourth down in overtime.

And then they run the ultimate backyard football play, the Statue of Liberty, on the winning two-point conversion.

Oh, and the guy who scored the game winner dropped to his knee and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend after his "mid-major" team chopped down one of college football's blue bloods.

Does it really get any better than that?

This game goes up alongside last year's Rose Bowl win by Texas and the Notre Dame-Southern Cal game last year as easily three of the best contests we've ever seen.

How do you define greatness, however?

Is it how important the game is? The quality of play? How fantastic the ending is? Is it the individual greatness of the players?

My ranking of the games would go:

  1. Boise St.-Oklahoma
  2. Texas-USC
  3. USC-Notre Dame
So how do you define greatness?